Posts tagged ‘Robert Jordan’

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.

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Monday Masterclass: magic

(This week’s Monday Masterclass is a little bit late. Maybe I should call it Tuesday Taster Class.)

Last week I wrote an introduction to secondary worlds. That post quickly got longer and somehow less detailed than I had intended, so this week, I’m going to start exploring some of the various aspects of secondary world creation that fantasy writers must consider when starting a project.

Choose Your Magic

First and foremost is magic. Magic – whether in the form of a raw energy that can be utilised by people with special abilities, or in the form of magical creatures, objects, events or places – is the defining aspect of fantasy. A great deal of thought must be given to the rules of any system of magic in a good fantasy story.

Perhaps the most basic choice a writer has in designing the secondary world is high-magic or low-magic. A high-magic world is one that is, maybe not full of magic and things magical, but one where such things are not uncommon. A low-magic world is one where wizards and beings and artefacts of power are extremely rare.

Other things to consider are: Is the power to use magic innate or can it be learned? What can magic do and not do? What are its drawbacks and risks? What kind of energy is it? Does it come from within the magician or is it drawn from the environment in some way? Can it be harnessed as a raw energy or are special substances, objects etc required? Are there different types of magic? If so, how do they interact with each other?

The question of who can use magic is an interesting one – and one that can be interpreted politically. Many fantasy worlds require magic-users to have some innate magical propensity for their talent. There is a sense in which this is an elitist view – in other words, some people are just better (ie, more magical) than others. In other secondary worlds, there is a more democratic ethos – that is, anyone can learn magic as long as they put in sufficient effort.

High and Low

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a good example of a high-magic world. The magic-users of this world are all part of a powerful organisation that, while based in one city state, has great influence across the continent in which the story takes place. Many of the main characters of the books can use magic; those that don’t often have quasi-magical abilities. The hero’s two best friends, for instance, aside from being affected by something called ta’veren, which twists fate in their presence, have between them unnatural luck, memories from past lifetimes, wolf-like senses and the ability to communicate with wolves, and access to the World of Dreams.

Although J K Rowlings’s Harry Potter books take place within the wider, non-magical world of muggles, magic and its use are so prevalent in the stories, that we can call the Britain of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic a high-magic secondary world.

The Gormenghast trilogy, by Mervyn Peake, on the other hand, is perhaps the very lowest of the low end of low-magic worlds. There isn’t really any magic in Titus Groan’s world (unless you count the high technology he encounters in Titus Alone – but that’s more sf territory). In the first two books, at least, there is an air of darkness and mystery, there are baroque ceremonies and a vast, labyrinthine castle, there are larger than life characters and strange events – but no definitively identifiable magic.

You’ll notice that I’ve contradicted myself by saying that magic is the defining aspect of fantasy and then introducing a fantasy story without any magic. Clearly, by this definition, the Gormenghast books are not fantasy – but they do take place within what appears to be a pure secondary world – one with no connection to our own.

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a low-magic world. In TLotR only certain beings can perform magical feats. The Valar, the gods of that world have long since left it to its own devices. Within Middle Earth there are still a few of the Maiar, powerful beings created in the early days of the world; Gandalf, Saruman and Sauron are all of this race. Apart from them, the elves are the only others who are capable of magic, and elven magic is less powerful, more territorial. The rest of the magic of Middle Earth is contained in objects like the Rings of Power and in beings like the Ents or Shelob.

Indeed, what gives Tolkien’s masterwork its elegaic beauty is the fact that much of this magic passes away at the end of the story – the One Ring is destroyed, which in turn destroys the other Rings, the elves sail west to the Undying Lands.

George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is another well known low-magic world. In it there are dragons – but only three – wights – but they are rarely seen – and sorcery – but only performed by one or two characters and with indirect or vague results. Instead, A Song of Ice and Fire is a study of medieval conflict, brutality and politics.

Detail and Description

In some secondary worlds, magic is a mysterious force, the practicalities of the use of which are not explained. In others, magic-use is explained in great detail.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Maiar can use magic because of their divine heritage; others are able to use magic because of their great learning. But how either perform their specific works is not elaborated on – the reader just has to accept that the characters can do what they can do.

In The Wheel of Time on the other hand, magic and its use are described in great detail. Magic is called the One Power; this comes from something called the True Source. The One Power is divided into a male half (saidin) and a female half (saidar); it is further divided into five elemental Powers, Air, Water, Earth, Fire and Spirit. Channellers must have the innate ability to channel – which may be weak or strong – then they are trained for years, or they learn on their own, often unconsciously (these latter are called wilders).

Creating a magical spell, or weave, involves seizing hold of the appropriate half of the One Power (each of which has different, but fairly cosmetic qualities) and then creating strands of each element required. Creating a fire, obviously requires only Fire; if you wanted that fire to move through the air, as a fireball, you would need Fire and Air. Healing is the most complex form of channelling and requires all five elements woven together in intricate form.

Channelling is tiring – the more complex the weave and the more One Power used to create it, the more tiring it is. At the beginning of the story, only women are legally and practically able to channel – in a previous age, the male half of the One Power was tainted by the Dark One (the evil god) so that male channellers eventually go mad and start destroying everything around them. This twist and its ramifications is one of the more interesting aspects of the world Robert Jordan created.

Other Examples

In most fantasy stories, mages, wizards, sorcerers come into their power by come combination of innate ability and long training. In Stephen R Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, however, the main character (Thomas Covenant) comes into his powers by the simple coincidence of having a wedding ring of white gold – a material of extreme rarity in the world he finds himself in. In order to use this magic, he doesn’t need to go to a magical university – instead he needs to find his self-belief, an issue that is intimately tied up with his belief in the Land in which the story takes place.

Donaldson created another interesting take on magic in the Mordant’s Need series. In it, magic – called Imagery (which cleverly contains the word ‘mage’) – requires mirrors. The mirrors, correctly used, translate things from other worlds. The hero, Terisa Morgan is translated to the world of Mordant in this way. In one scene, two mirrors facing each other across a field of battle summon a chasm in the middle of the ground.

In Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen magic comes from places called warrens with exotic names like Omtose Phellack and Kurald Galain. These warrens are not just sources of magical energy, but entire realms that can be entered physically. Omtose Phellack, for instance is a realm of ice and the special warren of an ancient race called the Jaghut.

Magical items are a staple of fantasy and often serve the function of emphasising a hero’s righteousness – Arthur’s Excalibur, for instance – or of thrusting a modest character into the midst of great events – Bilbo and Frodo’s Ring. Also, magical artefacts are simply the tools of the trade of a mage – such as Harry Potter’s wand. Sometimes they may be relatively simple and tractable tools; often, though, their use comes with inherent dangers: the wild magic generated by Thomas Covenant’s white gold ring always threatens to get out of control, and could even destroy the world; Michael Moorcock’s character Elric of Melniboné must contend with an evil sword that brings him strength but also misfortune to those around him.

Places can also be loci of magic. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter has the mundane realm of Erl neighbouring the magical realm of Elfland, where magic is possible and time flows differently. Elfland or Faerie or similar ideas have been around in folk tales and fairy stories for hundreds of years. Magical locations can be more specific: the wizards’ school in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories has two special places where powerful magic is easier to perform. In Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Ryhope Wood seems to be a small English forest from the outside, but inside is a vast magical realm where archetypal beings come to life.

Times, too, can be magical. The full moon is the most obvious example – a time when werewolves transform and lunacy is rife (the word ‘lunatic’ comes from ‘luna‘ – ‘the moon’). In Ian Cameron Esslemont’s Malazan novel, Night of Knives, the action takes place over the once in a generation event called a Shadow Moon, when the warrens become permeable and eldritch powers vie for control.

Words and Language

In some secondary worlds, language is key to the use of magic. For the wizards of Earthsea, names are vital; to know something or someone’s true name is to have power over it or them. However, when a wizard travels to other lands, language changes, and if the wizard doesn’t know the new language, his power over things diminishes. The magic of Harry Potter requires the use of special short incantations, which form a kind of sham Latin. In R Scott Bakker’s The Second Apocalypse series, mages effect magic by simultaneously speaking words in one language and thinking words in another language.

This leads on to a further point – the terminology used to describe magic in a fantasy novel. I feel that words like ‘magic’, ‘mage’, ‘wizard’, ‘sorcerer’ are overused to the point of cliché and parody. A believable secondary world needs terms that are original but authentic. Robert Jordan used terms like ‘channel’, ‘weave’, ‘One Power’, as well as making up new names like ‘Aes Sedai’ (the female order of magic-users). Other writers, like Stephen R Donaldson, use obscure synonyms for magic, such as ‘puissance’ (‘power’), ‘thaumaturgy’ (‘miracle-working’), or ‘theurgy’ (‘divine intervention’).

Conclusion

There are many more types of magic used in secondary worlds than I can cover here: necromancy, telepathy, divine intervention, deals with devils and so on. Hopefully the above gives you some idea of all the considerations a writer must undertake before settling on a system of magic for his or her new secondary world. Personally, I’m planning a system that requires a kind of meditative state to alter reality, using an original set of of words that I’ve adapted from Latin roots.

What are your favourite kinds of magic from fantasy stories? Which ones are the most original? Which are the most believable? Post below with your comments and ideas.

Word of the day: oblation

ob·la·tion /ɒˈbleɪʃən/

–noun
1. the offering to god of the elements of bread and wine in the Eucharist.
2. the whole office of the Eucharist.
3. the act of making an offering, especially to a deity.
4. any offering for religious or charitable uses.

Origin:
1375–1425; late Middle English oblacion < Late Latin oblātion– (stem of oblātiō ), equivalent to oblāt ( us ) ( see oblate 2 ) + –iōn– -ion

—Related forms
ob·la·to·ry /ˈɒbləˌtɔri, -ˌtoʊri/
ob·la·tion·al, adjective

Source: Dictionary.com.

The noblemen and noblewomen ahead bowed or curtsied from horseback, and those oblations were deeper this time than they had been when meeting Elayne in her throne room.

Source: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.

Quite apart from how it’s possible to curtsy from horseback, this apparent misuse of the word ‘oblation’ indicates to me how weak Brandon Sanderson’s English is.

The real never-ending story

There’s a blog post up for the non-fiction prize of the British Science Fiction Association Awards about Robert Jordan’s now legendary The Wheel of Time. In it, the writer talks about how terrible the series became after a moderately good start. I love TWoT, but it’s not an unconditional love – the books are full of cheesy details about the patterns on the women’s skirts, the female character tugging their braids and so on.

The degradation of the series – which in some ways was a masterpiece of world-building and epic high fantasy tropes – highlights that all too common phenomenon of the fantasy series – the law of diminishing returns. Too many series start off extremely promising, but don’t quite live up to that promise. In a trilogy, such as Robin Hobb’s Farseer books or Sean Russell’s The Swans’ War, maybe this isn’t such a terrible thing, but when a series drags on for fourteen books, even beyond the author’s death, the returns get smaller and smaller and smaller.

None of which is going to stop me reading Towers of Midnight in the near future, or A Memory of Light in a year’s time.

Words, words, words, as Hamlet said

On the subject of books, this autumn looks like being a great season for book releases from some of my favourite authors. In addition to Against All Things Ending (see below), there’s Towers of Midnight (book 13 of The Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson,

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, by Robert Rankin,

and I just found out that there’s a new Iain M Banks book coming out – a Culture novel, no less – called Surface Detail: