Thermopylae Was Not a Romantic Comedy

Romantic sucker that I am, I always get caught up in the moment. Don’t pretend like you don’t know the moment I’m talking about. We’ve come to the final, heart-thumping moments of a romantic movie. In a fit of heartbroken resolve, one character decides to leave the other, but wait! His/her true love races to the airport/bus station/train station to catch him/her just before he/she disappears forever, and all the while I’m clutching my popcorn and screaming at the taxi driver to go fucking faster!

Don’t scoff. I’m not alone here. There’s a whole TV Tropes page dedicated to this.

The thing is, though, when the movie is finally over, I start to feel a tiny worm of doubt. What, I start to wonder, is so damn urgent about this particular flight? Don’t these people have cell phones? Land lines? The whole creaking apparatus of the United States Postal System? Couldn’t the one doing all the rushing just send a text: Hey. Raced to the airport, but missed you! I love you. Please come back. It’s not as though there aren’t hundreds of flights leaving Cleveland every day.

We’re not talking about an early South Pacific Islander, who, heartbroken, sets off across the Pacific in a canoe hoping that he might run into something like Hawaii. That would be a really urgent situation. That’s when you really need to haul some serious ass to the beach. But this airport thing? On Expedia, every departure is reversible for the price of a one-way ticket.

Reversibility and complexity, however, can really confuse a good climax. High stakes, by definition, are fairly permanent. More, the possible outcomes of any climax can’t be too complex. Life-and-death scenarios tend to be more effective than Life-or-injury-or-maybe-death-but-probably-not-but-definitely-a-real-possibility-of-some-sadness-that-could-lead-to-long-term-migraine scenarios. Consider the possibilities:

A)   If Melanie doesn’t get the antidote to the poison by noon, she’ll die!

B)   If Melanie doesn’t get the antidote to the poison by noon, she’ll have to experiment with a more complicated set of options. She can cut kale out of her diet, to see what that does to her blood sugar levels. If that works, then maybe she’s ok as long as she doesn’t get bitten again. Alternatively, if the kale-diet fails, she might need to actually avoid all leafy greens for a year. At that point there are some tests she can have done to determine if she’s at greater risk for a tumor that might develop in five to ten years…

A)   If Sandy doesn’t manage to seduce George tonight, he’ll ignore her forever!

B)   If Sandy doesn’t manage to seduce George tonight, well, there’s a party Saturday. And if that doesn’t work, she’ll probably see him after work next Wednesday. Or she could date Jim until Christmas, and then see how things look with George, who, let’s face it, is kind of a loser and doesn’t have that many options. Hell, Sandy could probably play the field until 2017 and still have a chance of landing George if she hasn’t found something better by then.

The trouble is, most real events aren’t binary in nature. Take the American Civil War. I learned in grade school that the crucial event, the one on which everything hinged, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Well… maybe. Or maybe not. At the very least, it’s an extremely simplistic notion. In fact, if you want to see some of the disagreement that still exists regarding the war’s turning point, check out this page. There are twelve candidates listed, the first in 1861, the last in 1864. And then there’s the fact that the people who fought at Gettysburg certainly didn’t realize it was the turning point. The war dragged on for two years after it ended.

This sort of complexity makes for great history dissertations and dinner table arguments, but it seriously complicates the task of a writer. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re writing epic fantasy, one in which the stakes are appropriately high. Eventually, you need to bring it all to a climax, but what to do? You probably want something – an event – that is both obvious and decisive. We might call it, oh, I don’t know… maybe THE LAST BATTLE. Actually, never mind, the term is already taken. Twice.

Still, the narrative advantages of THE LAST BATTLE are obvious. High stakes! Binary outcome! Good triumphs, or evil does!

The trouble is, true “last battles” are pretty rare. Take one of history’s most famous last stands: the Battle of Thermopylae. Three hundred Spartan warriors (with some help) stand against the assembled might of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. They fight heroically, holding the pass for three days, battling to nearly the last man. It’s a truly do-or-die situation. Except it’s not. The Spartans lose the battle and it’s not until next year (479) that the Persians are conclusively defeated at Plataea.

This is a serious pain in the ass, dramatically speaking.

You can see Tolkien grappling with this problem near the end of the Lord of the Rings. After the victory at Pelennor Fields, Aragorn and company are at loose ends. They know, we know, and Tolkien knows that the only thing that matters is whether or not Frodo destroys the Ring. Everyone else could spend the end of the book playing Grand Theft Auto, but that wouldn’t be all that satisfying, dramatically speaking. Tolkien, of course, comes up with a plausible reason for the rest of his cast to tromp all the way over to the Black Gate: they need to distract Sauron, to buy Frodo some space. Fair enough. The battle becomes relevant. But notice that Tolkien is still reliant on a binary event: ring destroyed/ring not destroyed. Without an event like that, it’s tough to have a satisfying climax.

Literary fiction, of course, has long eschewed any attempt at an epic climax. It is acceptable in literary fiction to end on an ambiguous scene in which a middle-aged man contemplates a dilapidated canoe that once belonged to his father while a loon sounds its mournful cry in the distance. I’d like to see someone try that shit with epic fantasy.


When my wife and I bought our house she made fun of me for spending more time looking at the survey map of the property than I did at the closets or lighting fixtures. I refused to close until I’d tromped the whole perimeter, hunting out the massive cherry tree and the stand of spruce that marked the important boundaries. Of course, I missed the fact that the washer and dryer were about to shit the bed, that one of the windows didn’t, you know, close, but I know just where to find that steel pipe hidden in the stand of moose maple.

I’ve written before about the role of maps in the generation of fantasy worlds, and I want to return to the subject of maps here on a smaller scale. Nearly every epic novel has that massive map right inside the front cover: continents and duchies, blighted deserts and major rivers, mountain ranges and disputed deltas. Those maps serve an important function, but I think we writers of fantasy sometimes forget that maps can play other roles as well, specifically when it comes to the fantasy battle.

Take a look at the following maps from the American Civil War battles of Gettysburg and Antietam:

Gettysburg Map

Antietam Map

Both were crucial conflicts and, just as importantly for our purposes here, both were complex. Gettysburg lasted three days. Anyone who’s visited the Gettysburg site knows that it takes just about that long to explore the whole battlefield, to try to understand what took place and when and how, to crouch down on Cemetery Hill, to follow the agonizingly long course of Pickett’s Charge (in which one of every two Confederate soldiers died), to walk through the “Valley of Death.” It’s not just my curiosity about maps and geography at work here, it’s a fascination with the human condition, the acts of heroism and cowardice, brilliance and stupidity, that played out on both sides. Those human stories are at the heart of the Battle of Gettysburg and the crucial thing is this: we wouldn’t be able to fully understand them without the map.

Even the most lucid writer narrating for the most attentive reader would run into problems. Describe the terrain first, then people it with troops? Consider the battle from an eagle’s-eye view, or get down in the lines and give a confusing, but more psychologically immediate account from a soldier’s perspective? Take a synchronic approach, running through all the events of, say, 3:00 PM on July 2, or follow one unit through the course of a full day and then rewind to pick up a different storyline?

A battle map doesn’t solve all these problems, but it does give the writer more freedom. A glance at a small-scale battle map gives the reader a better understanding of the terrain and deployment of troops than several pages of tedious description. The writer can then focus on the inner lives of those involved, the instances of heroism and cowardice, of tactical brilliance and strategic blunder, without worrying that the reader might not understand that this hill is a little further to the north than that hill, that the river curves below the stretch of rapids and not above.

Of course, most fantasy battles are not this complex. Even major battles (Helm’s Deep, some of the big fights in the Codex Alera series) tend to be pretty straightforward: guard this castle, attack that hill. There’s nothing wrong with straightforward fights, but any writer (and reader) with even a marginal curiosity regarding military history will sometimes hanker for something a little more involved. In these cases, a battle map (or two! Or three!) prefacing the chapter could play a crucial role. It’s worth noting that Joe Abercrombie’s novel The Heroes revolves around a single three-day battle – and it has a small-scale map of just this sort.

On the other hand, my wife never looks at the maps. “I don’t read for the cartography,” she says. “Atlases are for maps; novels are for stories.” I’m curious whether others feel this way, or if, like me, most readers would prefer more maps than we’re usually given.