Axe Murder at the Ball Game; Our Shifting Conception of Heroism

One nice thing about soccer games between six-year-olds is that no one kills anyone with an axe. You might see a drunk mom screaming at the ref, or a couple of dads in a fistfight, but that’s about it. People don’t bring broadswords to Pee-Wee soccer events.

It hasn’t always been that way. As exhibit A, I present Egil’s Saga, a 13th century Icelandic tale composed (the scholars think) by Snorri Sturluson. Early in the story we encounter a ball game between our hero, Egil, age six at the time, and an older boy, Grim, age eleven:

“The game began and Egil proved to be the weaker, while Grim made the most of his strength. Then Egil got so angry that he lifted the bat and struck Grim with it, but Grim took hold of him, hurled him to the ground and gave him some very rough treatment. […] Egil went to look for Thord Granason and told him what had happened.

 “ ‘I’ll come with you,’ said Thord. ‘The two of us will pay him back.’

“ Thord gave Egil a thick-bladed axe he was carrying, common enough at that time, and they went to the field where the boys were playing. Grim had just caught the ball and was racing along with the other boys after him. Egil ran up to him and drove the axe into his head right through to the brain.”

So – I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t hire Thord as my Little League coach. Even more interesting, however, is the reaction of Egil’s parents:

“When Egil came home, Skallagrim [his father] made it clear that he was far from pleased, but Bera [his mother] said that Egil had the makings of a real viking and it was obvious that as soon as he was old enough he ought to be given fighting-ships.”

The modern equivalent would be discovering that your son had murdered a kid with a brick during a game of pick-up basketball and deciding, as a result, to buy him a Dodge Viper.

Given this level of parenting, I suppose it’s not surprising that Egil never outgrows his childhood brutality. Just at the end of the saga, when he is an old man nearing his death, there’s a great moment in which he tries to decide what to do with two chests of silver he won earlier in his life:

“I want to take my two coffers with me, the ones I got from King Athelstan, both full of English silver. I want them carried up to the Law Rock when the crowd gathered there is at its biggest, and I’m going to throw the silver about […] I’ll bet there’ll be a bit of pushing and punching. Maybe in the end the whole assembly will start fighting.”

When you can no longer kill people yourself, I guess it’s a comfort to know your money can still be used to start a respectable brawl.

The thing I find interesting about these passages, and about Egil in general, is that he is the story’s protagonist. He is the hero. Modern notions of genre and plot structure don’t really apply here, but everything about the saga invites us to sympathize with Egil and to root for him, even when he’s picking fights with the innocent or murdering his Irish slaves.

Between the time Egil allegedly lived (10th century) and the time his saga was finally penned (13th), Christianity came to both Norway and Iceland. Sturluson himself received theological training. And yet, the narrator of Egil’s saga refrains scrupulously from any imposition of Christianity’s ethical precepts onto his pre-Christian characters. Of St. Ambrose’s four cardinal virtues – temperance, justice, prudence, fortitude – Egil possesses only the last, and yet he is admired by the narrator (and presumably by the audience), for his own qualities, primarily his physical strength and his ability to compose poetry.

Fantasy, of course, is replete with protagonists of dubious morality – assassins, con-men, barbarians. It’s not often, however, that the writers of these characters find themselves able to utterly discard our modern notions of morality. As one example among dozens, we can take a look at Durzo Blint, the ruthless assassin from Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows. In the very first chapter Blint splits open a few bad guys, not realizing, evidently, that his murders are witnessed by a local orphan. It’s revealing to take a close look at the end of the chapter, when Blint discovers this hidden child:

“Just above Azoth on the other side of the floor, Durzo Blint whispered, “Never speak of this. Understand? I’ve done worse than kill children.”

“The sword disappeared, and Azoth scrambled out into the night. He didn’t stop running for miles.”

Blint tells us (and Azoth) that he kills children (and worse), but then he blinks. He doesn’t actually do it. Why? Well, we’d have a pretty damn short book without Azoth, for one thing, but for another, Weeks isn’t willing to allow his protagonist to inhabit an utterly alien morality. If you swapped Egil in for Blint, Azoth’s brains would be leaking into the mud.

I’m not trying to pick on Weeks, here. I love his book, and this type of thing is extremely common in fantasy. We (as readers and writers) can wrap our minds around invented magical systems, new races, and civilizations millions of years old more easily than we can accept protagonists whose ethical makeup is entirely different from our own. Steven Erikson’s barbarian, Karsa Orlong, is the only exception that leaps immediately to mind, and Erikson has written an outstanding essay on just this topic, asking, “How far from our own sensibilities can we be pushed before it’s too much?”

I’m very curious to hear how readers would answer that question. Also, I wonder what other fantasy protagonists out there really do buck the central aspects of our modern ethical and moral systems? What modern writers, like Sturluson, are able to fully imagine an alternate conception of heroism?


Usain Bolt Versus Gimli; A World Without Seconds

Usain Bolt would hate living in a fantasy novel. He’d still be fast, obviously, but no one would know just how fast. The tiny slivers of seconds separating him from the rest of the pack, making him, officially, the fastest human being in the recorded history of the world wouldn’t be, well… recorded. Imagine the scene: Bolt at the finish line, left arm extended, pointing, right arm bent – his classic victory pose – while a couple of monks squint at the hourglass and sundial.

Monk 1: Did you see it move?

Monk 2 (querulously): Well, there was a cloud.

Monk 1: How many grains went through the hourglass?

Monk 2 (with increasing irritation): I don’t know. It kept running after he crossed the line.

On the other hand, Bolt’s problems pale compared to those of the writer of fantasy, who has to deal with this sort of thing in nearly every chapter. After all, even if we stuck Bolt into, say, the Lord of the Rings, even if we never knew exactly how fast he was, it’d be pretty clear that he was faster than, say, Gimli. As a racer, Bolt can always just mark off a section of dirt and challenge people to a race. The author of fantasy, on the other hand, is in the position of the monks mentioned above; she is the timekeeper, not the racer, and she’s not allowed to use a clock.

Of course, clocks existed in the medieval world and, if you include water clocks, much earlier. Archaeologists have discovered clepsydrae in Babylon, India, Egypt, and China, some dating back more than five thousand years. The clocks themselves are not anachronistic. The ubiquity of timekeeping, on the other hand, our ability to glance at our watches or computers or wall clocks or phones or televisions and see time ticking past in seconds and minutes, nice and orderly, is uniquely a hallmark of the modern world. From where I’m sitting right now, in a café in Brattleboro, Vermont, I can see seven clocks (if you include the parking meter just outside the window).

A writer whose books are set in the contemporary world can easily jot down a sentence like this: “For a few seconds, Jim held his breath, hoping the walrus would not hear him.” The same sentence, however, even excluding the walrus, might give a writer of fantasy pause. After all, the denizens of her world are unlikely to think in terms of seconds. Even if there were a clock tower in the center of their town, they lack wristwatches. The narrator, naturally, need not be constrained by the psychological limitations of the characters, but if she too freely appropriates the temporal precision of the modern world, she risks shattering the illusion of her invented land.

Different authors of fantasy and historical fiction have approached the problem from different angles. Steven Erikson’s elegant solution is to use heartbeats instead of seconds. Of course, not all heartbeats are equal, but the order of magnitude is right. Hours are also simple enough; you can usually get away with “half the morning,” or, “for most of the day.” If the scene takes place in a city or town, someplace with bells or gongs or a massive church clock in the center square, so much the better.

Things get tough in the middle realm, the chunks of time greater than a few heartbeats and shorter than a morning. If you want your character to hide beneath the floorboards for fifteen minutes, what do you do? A few ideas:

Make the poor bastard count: “Jarrel waited for the echoing footfalls above to recede, then forced himself to count upward to a thousand before he dared to risk raising the trap door.” This is rarely a great solution. Unless the reader is quick to convert a thousand-count into minutes (16.6), it’s not very precise. Also, it’s psychologically implausible in most situations: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts and counted to a thousand…”

Put in some clocks: Maybe you thought your town didn’t have clocks? Maybe you want to think again: “Jarrel seized Elesse, clutching her to him, returning her feverish kisses as he ran his hands beneath her skirts, ignoring the clock tolling ten, and ignoring it, too, when it later tolled eleven.” But then, this isn’t going to do you much good if they’re making out in the woods.

Fudge it: “For what seemed a very long time Elesse ran her hands over Jarrel, his chest, his back, marveling that, after so many years, he should be in her arms once more.” This solution tends to work well in battle, too: “Elesse hacked with her blade for what seemed like days, until her arms were spattered with blood and her breath burned in her chest.”

Compare it to something else: I still remember the prologue to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, which is a great book, but has this strange sentence in the prologue: “…another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile.” It’s a game attempt to solve the temporal problem. Unfortunately, the sentence needs to be taken out into the street and shot.

The most useful approach is probably to mix the methods; the timekeeping for love will be different from the timekeeping for blacksmithing, and there are certainly other approaches that I’ve forgotten or never even considered. I’d be very curious to hear what I’ve left out. In a world without seconds, can you have a rodeo?

Those Lazy Writers of Fantasy

Writers of fantasy have been seriously slacking. Here we were, thinking they’d been inventing whole new worlds, imagining undiscovered lands, conjuring up hitherto undreamed of vistas and cultures and religions and vegetables and hats when, as it turns out, they’ve just been ripping shit off. These so-called writers have been taking places and people from the real world, from real history, tossing this stuff in their books, giving it new names, and hoping we would never notice!

And I’ll tell you, it doesn’t take much digging to find the real referents here, not when you’re clued in to the trick. Anyone else notice that Khal Drogo’s title sounds a lot like Khan, that the Dothraki are essentially Mongols? Or that Robert Jordan’s Caemlyn looks a lot like England? Or that R. Scott Bakker’s plot (in The Prince of Nothing) draws heavily on the Crusades? Or that N. K. Jemisin’s Gujarreh is modeled on Egypt? Or that Daniel Abraham’s entire map (in The Dragon’s Path) is just Europe scrunched up a little bit? What horseshit!

I’m joking, of course. Not about fantasy writers ripping shit off – we do that all the time – but about the idea that these cultural borrowings are either lazy, secret, or deleterious to the works in question. They are not.

In fact, far from diminishing the effect of these novels, I’d argue that such borrowing and modification, skillfully handled, is a boon for author and reader both. After all, when I sit down to read Jemisin’s The Killing Moon, she tells me right up front in the author’s note that the names and geography are essentially Egyptian. This sweeps aside a whole lot of work for both of us. I’m already imagining deserts and the Nile, monumental architecture and loincloths. She describes these things, of course – the world is well and truly fleshed out – but she doesn’t need to start from the ground up. Instead, she can dig more quickly into plot and character, confident that the reader, clued in to the cultural shorthand, will fill in any missing details more or less correctly. I usually enjoy reading fantasy in which the writer modifies a pre-existing culture because I feel I can focus on the important details instead of pausing every few seconds, muttering, “Wait, they live in straw houses and eat what again?”

There are, however, some dangers here. Most obviously, the writer will want to depart from the historical model in places. This is what makes the book fantasy and not historical fiction. However, the momentum of shared cultural assumptions can obscure these points of departure. If the whole book I’m reading draws heavily on the culture of medieval Japan, it’s going to be more difficult for the writer to steer us out of the relevant assumptions when such steering becomes necessary. The familiarity of the known becomes a sort of prison.

Of course, part of the fun has been to establish what seems to be a familiar cultural paradigm only to subvert it. “Look,” the author says. “This place is just like medieval Arabia. Load it up with your assumptions. Keep piling them on! You’re doing great!” And then, because the book is fantasy and not history, she pulls the carpet out, forcing us to realize that a) this place is not medieval Arabia, but something altogether stranger and more wonderful, and that b) maybe our assumptions about medieval Arabia weren’t all that dialed-in to begin with.

I don’t mean to imply that all writers employ these methods. The shelves are piled with fantasy novels that eschew any obvious borrowings, geographic, linguistic, cultural, or religious. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea is an obvious example, as is Steven Erikson’s Malazan series. I find both worlds fascinating and disorienting at the same time, refreshing for their refusal to draw on any givens, but daunting for the same reason. These are, in a way, the purest fantasies, and I find myself amazed by the ambition and ability of both writers. Still, it’s useful here to remember that the root of “amazed” is “maze,” as in delusion, bewilderment, perhaps drawn from the Norwegian mas, meaning “exhausting labor.” In other words, writers who build their worlds from the bedrock up require a lot more work from their readers. The payoff from Le Guin and Erikson is so great that I don’t hesitate to put in this work, but it’s important to note the costs nonetheless; a lot more people have read The Wheel of Time than The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

I’m curious to hear from other readers and writers. When does the sort of cultural shorthand I’ve been trying to describe work well, and when does it seem lazy or derivative? Would you rather read books with lands that are vaguely familiar, or plunge into something altogether new?

The Good Kind of Beheading

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains a major spoiler for Game of Thrones, the first book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. There is also a semi-spoiler regarding Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although nothing that should really ruin the story.

Most writers aren’t killers.

It doesn’t bring any sort of pleasure to create a character out of that magical mixture – two parts thin air, one splash of that girl we knew back in high school, a sprinkling of voice from the conversation next to us in the coffee shop, a liberal dollop of bullshit, boiled up with our own sublimated fears and desires – only to murder that character a few pages or chapters or books later. I often find myself reluctant to kill off even the characters I created for that very purpose. Even odious villains. Once I’ve spent all the time dreaming them up, I want to keep them around a little bit longer, to find out what awful shit they’ll get up to next.

And yet, the power of killing a major character, the necessity of it is undeniable. I still recall, as does just about everyone who has read Game of Thrones, the moment that Ned’s noble head is lopped from his equally noble shoulders. The whole world of the novel seemed to shift at that moment. “Oh shit,” I thought to myself. “It’s that kind of book.” And suddenly, all possible outcomes were in play. Anyone could die at any time and, of course, they do. The book was better for Ned’s beheading.

A lot of older fantasy wasn’t quite like that. All the main characters except Boromir survive in Lord of the Rings, and even Boromir’s death is a sort of liberation, a badly needed rehabilitation. I loved the Belgariad as a child, but I always got the feeling that nothing really bad could happen to any of the really key players. In the these “gentler” forms of fantasy when someone you like is going to die, the death is telegraphed pretty far out, so you have time to prepare; it is also generally ennobling. Death becomes a sacrifice necessary for the ultimate triumph, not a meaningless, avoidable slaughter that occurs just because a character you’ve come to like makes a stupid mistake.

And yet, as noted, this second kind of death – the senseless and unexpected – is what really puts a reader on edge, what makes her keep flipping the pages, wide-eyed, wondering if the good guys are actually going to pull off a victory. It seems like an ingredient every fantasy writer should employ, almost a necessary formula: “In Book I of your series, kill a major and likeable character.” Writers and hostage takers share a rulebook here: “Let the bastards know you mean business.”

As formulae go, I like this one, but I think it’s dangerous.

A story is a contract between writer and reader. When we open a book, we expect certain things: mysteries introduced in the opening chapters will be resolved by the close, obstacles faced will be overcome (even if only partially), and, perhaps most crucially, we will follow the characters we’ve come to know to their ends, happy or sad.

I’ve more or less arrived at the conclusions that a writer can get away with killing one major character, someone in whom both she and her reader have invested time and emotional energy, per book. Much more than that, however, and I start to feel as though I’ve been bamboozled. If these folks are going to die on page four hundred (out of a two thousand word series,) I start to wonder, “Why did we spend so much time with them in the first place?” After all, if they’re gone from the picture by a quarter of the way through the story, it can’t really be their story. The contract feels violated.

This problem is compounded when the writer introduces entirely new characters in books two, three, four, five, etc, to take the place of those who have fallen. “Ok,” I sometimes find myself saying, “if it was all going to depend on this other asshole in the end, why weren’t we paying attention to him in Book One?” I also have more trouble investing in characters introduced later in the game.

It all comes back to that unwritten contract, of course. Writers like Steven Erikson let you know pretty much up front that their stories are actually histories. We are following the grand sweep of events, not the fate of a particular hero or group of heroes. As such, we accept that plenty of people are going to die – that’s what happens in history. When he kills off crucial characters in book two, he hasn’t violated his contract.

George R.R. Martin also scrapes by because of the scope of his series. He can kill a handful of characters while retaining others that we still care about. Imagine, however, if all the Starks were dead by book six and we were expected to read about the Martells for the rest of the story…

So a writer walks a fine line. A reader expects the people to whom she’s introduced in the opening pages to be (mostly) around by the end – that’s why she bothers learning about them, caring for them. On the other hand, if the writer doesn’t stab a few in the back, that reader grows complacent; the character lives, but the story itself dies.

I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others on this question. How much killing is too much? Where have you seen it employed to good effect, and where does it undermine the story?

NOT SHRINKAGE! Fantasy and the Problem of Distance

All fantasy writers must, at one point or another, face down the following conundrum:

1. An epic world is physically vast.
2. A vast world takes a long time to traverse.
3. Too much traversing gets really, really boring.

The author is left to attack one (or more) of the three premises, but each approach has its risks.

Some writers choose to make their worlds smaller. Scott Lynch confines the action of his first book to a single city. Patrick Rothfuss allows Kvothe more leeway in The Name of the Wind, but the vast majority of book one transpires in just two locations; the voyages between are elided pretty swiftly. This can be an elegant solution; all the more so in the realm of fantasy, where concision and focus are not commonplace virtues. Confining the action to one specific locale (or a few of them) allows the writer to fully explore the location and avoid all the tedious traipsing required to get from point A to point B. That said, one of the reasons that many of us read epic fantasy is to explore a truly vast and diverse new land. Tightening the focus undermines this opportunity.

Some writers choose to whittle away at the second premise. The world can be huge, as long as your characters (or some of them) have a way to jump around with a little more alacrity when we get bored of slogging down the dusty roads and stopping at the wayside inns. Robert Jordan has the ‘Ways’ and later, when even those are too tedious, the ability of just about every major character to open a gateway. Tolkien has Gwaihir the eagle tote Gandalf around in two instances (once in his escape from Orthanc, the other after his battle with the Balrog), as well as rescuing Frodo and Sam after the destruction of the Ring. There are plenty of ways to move characters around a fantasy world quickly, but here, too, we run into dangers, although a different set from those mentioned above.

Chief among these new problems is shrinkage. As characters move more quickly, the world seems smaller. It’s harder to have forgotten cities or unexplored primeval forests when people can jump from one end of the world in an eye-blink. It’s harder to adopt an ominous tone, saying, “No one knows what lies beyond the mountains,” when the characters could simply hop through a gateway or jump on an eagle and check. The solution here is to limit the method of travel to certain occasions (e.g. it only works once a year) or characters (e.g. only these two dudes can do it).

But it’s easy to run into unexpected plot consequences. People are forever asking why Gandalf didn’t just stick Frodo (with the Ring) atop Gwaihir – ship him off to Orodruin and have done with it. While it may be possible to respond to this objection, the overarching problem remains: much of fantasy depends on physical obstacles to human movement. The very notion of a quest is generally dependent on geographical distance. Shrink that distance and quests (and treks, and hunts, etc.) shrink correspondingly in their significance.

The dangers inherent in attacking the first two premises lead some writers to attack the third: they disagree with the very notion that a slog of, say, a thousand miles, must eventually get boring. In fact, many writers find opportunity in this challenge. Fantasy literature is replete with epic treks (one of my favorites being the Chain of Dogs in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen). There’s no question that a long journey in which the protagonists are exposed to strange places – the more frightening, unexpected, and exotic, the better – can be a joy to read. And yet, I would contend that most series can only pull off one or two of these. After that, the reader (and characters) are familiar with the world and we want to get on with the plot already.

There’s no perfect solution. I tend toward option B in my own writing: selective opportunities for fast travel. Having created these opporutnities, however, I’m constantly amazed at how frequently they threaten to screw up my plot. I’d be curious to hear how other readers and writers think about this “problem of distance,” and the solutions you find most compelling.