More Bankers, Fewer Peasants

A great development in recent fantasy is the inclusion of banks and bankers. I can’t remember encountering a bank in a fantasy novel before, say, 2005. (Anyone want to jump on this and prove me wrong?) Now they’re all over the place. Joe Abercrombie has Valint and Balk, George R. R. Martin, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and Daniel Abraham, in The Dragon’s Path, the Medean Bank, which is crucial to a lot of the action.

This proliferation of banks is a great reminder of how attenuated the available cast of fantasy characters can become. We have the peasants prodding patiently at the mud, knights who have swords with names, disgraced knights, disgraced knights pretending to be peasants, noble knights who are not actually disgraced but need to pretend to be peasants for some plot consideration or other, merchants, tavern keepers, inn keepers, beleaguered farmers, rich farmers, whores, courtesans, various sorts of nobility, barbarians (in hordes or singly), prelates, priests, and monks (often disreputable or alcoholic), and craftspeople responsible for an array of commodities such as baskets and horseshoes. Pretty similar, actually, to the list of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That’s about it.

I understand, of course, that the idiom of most epic fantasy is pre-industrial, that the proliferation of vocations and avocations available those of us in the modern first world does not exist in that setting: there are no psychic hotline specialists, or app developers, or zumba instructors, or creators of new deodorant scents. Frequent famine, limitations on long-distance trade, inadequate markets and economic systems, as well as the brutal effects of war tended to limit options.

That said, we writers of fantasy sometimes take a limited set of options and whittle it down even further. I’m forever sticking merchants or beggars into my text before reminding myself that there are other options. Lots of other options. In the ancient and medieval west we would have found painters, illuminators of manuscripts, architects, composers, cartographers, engineers, midwives, translators, shipwrights, and tutors. If we venture from benighted Europe and head east of the Himalayas for our models, we find an even richer diversity upon which to draw. There were more types of craftsmen in Tang China because there were more types of craft: makers of porcelain or keepers of silkworms. Pressers of paper. Builders of clocks. There were astronomers and doctors and creators of all manner of cosmetics.

Clearly we, as readers of fantasy, might not find the same fascination with a grower of silkworms that we would with an invincible barbarian warrior. Violence sells, sex sells, politics sells, but the engineer devoted to constructing that armillary sphere? Maybe not so much. As for the peasants? Well, there were a shitload of them.

Nonetheless, I’m encouraged when I consider the true array of options available, and delighted every time I come across that unexpected yet utterly appropriate character: a judge, a glazier, or, yes, a banker. I wonder what professions, fields, or lifestyles I’ve left out? Anyone with thoughts on writers who are particularly effective in pushing past the boundaries of stock fantasy types?