War? What is it good for?

Absolutely nothing, according to those song lyrics. Yet so much of fantasy fiction is built around warfare. Arguably the defining text of our genre, The Lord of the Rings is, according to one of Bilbo Baggins’ proposed titles ‘What we did in the War of the Ring.’ Ask any fantasy fan to list seminal titles and I bet they’ll include David Gemmell’s ‘Legend’ and George RR Martin’s ‘A Song of Fire and Ice’, both epic tales inextricably bound to warfare. There are countless other examples.

Ask someone who doesn’t read fantasy fiction what the genre’s all about and the chances are they will cite battles and bloodshed, often with disapproval. When real blood is being spilled in Afghanistan and Iraq, before that in Kosovo and Bosnia, warfare in fantasy fiction trivialises such bravery and loss. Well, that response definitely proves you’re talking to someone who doesn’t read contemporary fantasy fiction.

Though if they did once read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ at school, you can remind them of Denethor’s grief at Boromir’s death, of Faramir’s desperate heroism, of Frodo and Sam’s journey through the Dead Marshes, the despoliation of Isengard and the scouring of the Shire. After serving on the Western Front in the Great War, Tolkien was very well aware of the costs of warfare, on personal and wider levels.

But such mistaken impressions of the genre don’t negate that crucial question. How does a fantasy writer use warfare as a backdrop or a central theme without trivialising the destruction of innocent lives, the tears in mothers’ eyes? There’s a reason why that song ‘War’ has been re-released and re-recorded ever since Edwin Starr took it to the top of the pop charts in 1970. Every decade’s news in print and on the screen has shown us conflict’s legacy of young men and women’s shattered dreams and broken bodies, among both service veterans and the non-combatants they are supposedly fighting to help.

On the other hand, we must acknowledge the ‘just’ war. The evils of Nazism could only be defeated through force of arms. It’s all very well to cite the injustice of the Treaty of Versailles and the failures of the Weimar Republic but the fact remains that once Hitler launched a war of aggression, armed conflict was not merely inevitable but essential. Even now, when dramatic interpretations have moved so far from the stiff upper lips of 40s and 50s war movies, black and white in every sense, to the complex nuances and merciless full-colour visuals of TV series like ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’.

Setting out to write a trilogy dealing explicitly with a civil war, I had a lot of thinking to do. In ‘Irons in the Fire’, I had to show why these characters concluded they could only fight fire with fire. How thoroughly their rulers were betraying the feudal compact by casually using battle as an extension of diplomacy for the sake of empty, selfish ambitions. In ‘Blood in the Water’, I needed to show the personal cost of set-piece battles, mental and physical, as well as the impact of such upheavals on the non-combatant populace. I wanted to show how wars are fought by far more people than sword-wielding heroes on horseback. How guilty complicity can reach far beyond those actually shedding blood. How such travail can reveal an individual’s essential character and their flaws, for good and ill.

In ‘Banners in the Wind’, I had to address the consequences of warfare. Even the most solidly justified war leaves a painful legacy lasting generations. The Second World War’s impact on Eastern Europe is still bound up with today’s politics while Rommel and Montgomery’s mines are still blowing up innocents in the North African desert. Even a short, apparently clear-cut war like the UK’s retaking of the Falkland Islands in 1982 won’t necessarily settle a question. Argentina still claims sovereignty of Las Malvinas.

So in ‘Banners in the Wind’, I’ve considered how much remains to be won or lost after the battles are over. How different priorities can shatter previous unity of purpose. How anarchy gives opportunity to humanity’s basest instincts. How a peace settlement will hold or fail depending on who is truly dedicated to it. How the personal toll can leave people once committed to a cause wondering if this price is truly worth paying. How individual responsibility means playing an active part in a society.

Most important of all, I wanted to do all this while telling an exciting, entertaining story. This seems central to this disapproval of fantasy warfare. War is not entertainment, the critics growl. Sorry, but conflict is the essence of drama. Just because that’s a cliché doesn’t make it any less true. Warfare has been a means for writers of fiction to explore the human condition ever since The Iliad. That’s important. While I’m happy to read heavyweight academic tomes on various wars as well as searing firsthand accounts of soldiering, not everyone is. Where is it written they must?

Non-fiction books are not always the best way to explore those broader questions about war, its necessity and its obscenity and to consider what these questions mean in time of peace. Specific incidents or individuals can hideously complicate matters, making it all too easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees. Reading about an imaginary world, about individuals facing perils so wholly different to our own, can actually facilitate a far better understanding of contemporary life and current events.

Tales of fictional wars can focus on the essentials, the bad and the good. While contemporary fantasy writers have a responsibility not to gloss over the ugliness of warfare, the conventions of our genre also allow us to celebrate heroism and valour. Let’s not forget the very best of humanity can be found amid such regrettable evils. We can reflect the medal ceremonies as well as the flag draped coffins without devaluing either. And as becomes apparent in ‘Banners in the Wind,’ true heroism might not be at all what you expect.

Blogpost 2010