War and fantasy

Tolkien’s Battle of the Five Armies and War of the Ring and Lewis’ battles against the White Witch set the warlike tone in the early days of the fantasy genre.  Not much has change since then. Warfare is still an integral part of many modern fantasy writers’ repartee. Myke Cole, Joe Abercrombie and (of course) George R R Martin are examples of writers currently hitting the complexity of warfare superbly.


Unfortunately they’re a minority.

I’ve been wolfing down tonnes of more recent fantasy lately and armed conflict in these books is often done pretty terribly. It’s thin. It’s boring, it’s unconvincing and (most often of all) it’s clichéd. Things have certainly improved in the last twenty years – the horrors and pity of war and the impacts on non combatants are aspects of conflict covered much more deftly these days – but I still think warfare is a fantasy weak point, which is sad considering how many novels turn on battles and conflict.

I’ve always been a history geek, so rather than just moan and groan and generally annoy my wife, I figured I’d do up a quick hit-list of war things I’ve read lately that have driven me crazy. Some of the points listed below are ‘wrong’ – silly mistakes for authors to avoid – others are clichés done to death and the remainder are personal things *I* think authors often miss and might help add a bit of colour to their work (*). They all appear quite a bit.

Hope these ramblings help!

It doesn’t take an idiot to lose.

If I’ve learnt anything in my reading it’s that you can forget farm boys and prophecies. These days idiotic generals must be about the most overused trope in fantasy (**).

The dead

They often go something like this;

Prince Dullard: “Ha! My Knights of the Bloody Rose will smash these unwashed barbarians before breakfast!”

Mercenary Captain Sly: “Perhaps our plan is a little rash, my lord.”

PD: “Nonsense! These savages will be no match for the flower of our nation’s chivalry!”

MCS: “My lord, these ‘savages’ have conquered the entire known world and they outnumber us ten to one. They are also dug in on that hilltop. I would urge prudence.”

PD: “Prudence! I know not the word. Bring me my lance. Onwards to glorious victory etc etc>”

< Everyone dies. Except maybe MCS who is badly wounded but escapes. He’s then really bitter and gives up on life ‘cause his wife and baby died in the battle. Probably he drinks for a bit. Later he discovers love where he never expected it, probably with PD’s daughter. >

I understand stupid or incompetent generals are true. History is full of examples of them. The shadow of the Great War’s lions and donkeys still looms large over our cultural landscape.

But states want to win wars (!). So do queens, and emperors. Crazily, they generally pick commanders they think are competent. Or at least reliable (both militarily and politically). Of course this doesn’t always work out. There is nothing like the crucible of war and commanders crack under the crushing test of operations all the time. They also fail to understand the impact of modern technology, or morale, or weather or a million other things… but the vast majority of generals aren’t stupid. You generally (ha!) don’t get to wear the big hat by being a nincompoop.

So take a deep breath before you write your next Prince Dullard. What’s more interesting to your readers – a one dimensional father’s-in-the-house-of-lords-and-mother’s-won-the-derby aristocratic idiot or West Point Puke or some poor bastard who is doing his or her best but will ultimately splinter under the strain and change and insanity of war.

Horses never break disciplined infantry.

Cavalry are cool. They’re dashing, wear nice uniforms, drink too much, chase the ladies, duel each other and gamble, a lot. I get why people love them.

Despite all this, they never break disciplined infantry formations. The few times they have are justifiably famous.

HussarThis isn’t to say they don’t win battles or aren’t important. Men like Alexander, Cromwell and Murat have shown exactly what cleverly handled cavalry can do. But if you are going to have your Kahnar-Asar steppe lancers break up formations of Galbionish pikemen, I’ll think you’re just being silly.

Formations are almost never completely wiped out.

It’s really, really, really hard to kill a couple of thousand people. Humans are surprisingly tough and unsurprisingly reluctant to get dead. Even in this savage modern age, killing everyone in a large group of people is technically and physically extremely difficult.

What does this mean for your book?

It means, atmospheric as it may be, commands rarely just disappear. Sure, formations that just vanish at the hands of the Kahnar-Asar spirit dryad dancer riders are a staple of fantasy, but try and avoid this trope. Even when you look at the absolute worst catastrophes in military history, it’s pretty common for a large number of troops, or even complete units, to manage to flee or fight their way out.

If you are dead keen on bumping a couple of thousand guys off and leaving no survivors – give some serious thought to how it will happen.

The Remnants of an Army 1879 by Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933

Sailing is hard. Really, really hard.

You know the horsemen of the Kahnar-Asar? They’re the ones who’ve come down from the High Places, sacked the coastal cities and are now eyeing off the distant island kingdom of Galbion.

Well the Galbonians can sleep easy for at least ten years, because our horsemen aren’t going to be building ships and becoming sailors any time soon.

There’s a reason the Royal Navy has a strong claim on being the world’s first truly modern organisation. There’s a reason the Phoenicians got a pretty good deal under Persian rule. There’s a reason sailors used to dismissively refer to landsmen as lubbers. There’s a reason the French Revolution reduced their navy to a joke for more than a decade. It’s because sailing is hard, really, really hard.


It takes years to become a useful sailor. It takes decades for a state to build and understand the sailing and use of ocean going ships. To make matters worse, the apparatus required to refit and repair ships is also mind-bogglingly complex.

So… don’t let your barbarians or orcs or trolls or whatever just start pumping out blue water ships overnight. Not unless they do a deal with your world’s Renice, Gonecia or Bolland anyway.

Soldiers win battles. Peasants *sometimes, occasionally* win insurgencies.

In open battle regular soldiers smash amateurs, almost every time. The reason instances where regular armies have been destroyed by irregular forces are so famous is because they’re so rare.

So if the peaceful yeomanry of Galbion suddenly get confronted by the veteran grenadiers of Kahnar-Asar, they’re probably going to get torn up. Quickly and badly.

There are exceptions to this rule; irregular troops humiliated America in Vietnam and Russia in Afghanistan. Cossacks in Russia and peasants in Spain bled Napoleon terribly.  The Scottish Jacobite clans beat whole armies of Hanoverian government troops. I guess what I’m saying is that history has millions of examples you can steal to get your charmingly irregular and peaceful troops into a win – just try to avoid making it happen in an open battle.

Battles don’t take place on billiard tables…

This is another fantasy favourite – battles that are written so they sound like they are taking place on a billiard table or an empty wargaming mat and the POV character has a perfect view of standards fluttering and units wheeling about in perfect cohesion. Yawn.

Obviously real battlefields are scattered with farms, sunken roads (or the Hornets Nest), orchards and all the other staples of real country side. Make sure you write this stuff in – it adds a nice touch of realism, if nothing else.

…or in darkened mazes.

The opposite trend in modern fantasy (especially grimdark) is for every battle to take place in a forest, in the middle of winter, while a thick fog is rolling in. This is a nice touch that helps highlight the horror and futility of war, but again it doesn’t quite wash with reality.

Of course wars have been fought in some pretty insanely inhospitable places, but most non idiotic generals (see above) try and fight in conditions that suit their armies.

Not a swamp in the dead of the long night caused by the eruption of Mount Ironpeak.

Gold (***) wins wars.

This one is disappointing. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of wars, the wealthiest and most industrialised state wins. Which kind of sucks.


Plenty has already been written about the silliness of peaceful, poor and agrarian societies triumphing over industrialised evil in fantasy – so I won’t rehash it here. But if you do want the little guys to win (and don’t we all) at least have a think about how and why they can triumph over the mighty sinews of gold and industry.

Which takes me to…

If gold loses, technology wins.

When a ‘lesser’ state wins, they generally have a technological advantage.

And I don’t just mean better guns. The Greeks in the Persian Wars understood and fought genuine face to face battles – while many of the Persian auxiliary troops did not (****). The Prussian Army of the eighteenth century was carried along by brilliant staff work. The Mongol horse archers thumped all comers for a long, long time due to a powerful mixture of equipment and tactics. The French struggled with the longbow for much of the Hundred Years War.

Before gunpowder aristocrats had every possible advantage.

You only have to look at a suit of plate armour to appreciate the massive killing power this kit granted its owner. But the aristocracy had plenty of other advantages as well; their diet was better, they were often physically bigger and throughout much of the European and Asian pre-industrial period the ruling classes also had significant periods of basically free time they dedicated to training and preparing for war. They were also better educated.


These kinds of factors made for a horribly unequal contest. In the absence of professional armies, rankers were often scraped up off the land, provided a minimum of training and equipment and then thrown into action. Imagine how one of these poor blighters must have felt when confronted by a knight or samurai who was bigger, stronger and better trained than he was, actually had something to personally gain in the war and was armed with equipment that was worth significantly more than all the commoner’s possession put together!

Not everyone hates war.

This one is pretty unpalatable for the modern reader – but a surprising number of warriors seem to enjoy war.

For a start, entire cultures have been built to be warlike – Sparta, Rome and the Zulu to name three. But, even in cultures where this isn’t the norm, there have always been outliers. Adrian Carton de Wiart (*****) said at the end of the Great War; “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.” Gerhard Blucher’s first commandant, Sebastian von Belling said the following prayer every evening; “Thou seest, dear Heavenly Father, the sad plight of thy servant Belling. Grant him soon a nice little war that he may better his condition and continue to praise thy name. Amen”  Men like Lord Nelson (*****) viewed the peace with France in 1802 as a personal disaster. There are literally thousands of other examples of this madness. In my own family, I’m not sure my grandfather exactly enjoyed the Second World War, but he certainly looked back on his time in the RAF with extreme fondness.

It’s weird and kind of horrific to admit this in the age of nuclear bombs and mechanised war, but there you go. Some people love war. You absolutely don’t need to include a war-loving man or woman in your novel – but it is certainly something to consider.

War was weird.

A lot of fantasy is about wars between races, religions or even species who ideologically despise each other. If you’re writing one of these, you can probably skip this point.

This point is another kinds of strange and uncomfortable one. More than anything above, this is the one I reckon grimdark writers in their urge to be, well, grim and dark consistently miss. They are great at capturing the bestiality and madness of war, but they kind of forget that there is this strange mix of other stuff thrown in.

Before the advent of total and ideological war, Europeans fought wars that were this really insane mixture of savagery and chivalry.

I’m best read on the Peninsular War. This war provides plenty of examples of what I am talking about. Like all wars, this was a brutal, inhumane bloodbath, bursting at the seams with savagery and barbarity. It inspired the magnificent Goya to paint this kind of thing…



… so yeah, it was a bloody and ruthless affair.

However, there was also this bonkers mixture of chivalry mixed in. The following two quotes are from Richard Holmes’ magisterial Redcoats:

‘”Repeated acts of civility passed between the French and us… wrote Kincaid. ‘The greyhounds of an officer following a hare, on one occasion ran into their lines, and they very politely returned them.’ A company commander in the 95th, told to take a French-held house, walked across and politely asked its garrison to evacuate the premises, thus avoiding a pointless little battle, which he, with numbers on his side, was sure to win. The French moved out.

“It was understood that outposts did not fire on one another. ‘I was one night on piquet,’ recalled Kincaid, ‘when a ball came from the French sentry… and they sent a flag of truce, next morning to apologise for the accident, saying that it had been done by a stupid fellow of a sentry who imagined that we were advancing on him. We admitted the apology, though we knew that it had been by a malicious rather than a stupid fellow…’”

In case you think only the British indulged in this madness, this story is French:

“His squadron leader wanted to meet some British officers, so Parquin put a bottle of good brandy in his sabretauche and rode out to one of the British outposts, waving his handkerchief. Immediately an officer of the 10th Light Dragoons galloped out and asked him what he wanted. ‘I have come to ask you and your fellow-officers to share this bottle of brandy with me and my colleagues,’ said Parquin,’ before we make contact with each other in a different manner.’ They discussed the British dragoons’ success in the light cavalry action at Benavente on 29 December 1809, which the French hoped to avenge, and a British officer asked if somebody could send a letter to the town of Moulins, for a friend of his who was prisoner there. ‘Dulimbert of the 13th Chassuers, whose father was prefect of Moulins, was glad to offer to do so,’ records Parquin… the officers had finished the brandy and made a good start on rum brought by the British when some shells fell nearby and broke up the conversation.”

Weird. Weird. Weird. These blokes are nicer to one another than most people who work together – for the same company! Steal that for your novel! And this wasn’t limited to the Peninsular, this strange thread ran through European war from the age of knights to the Christmas truces of 1914. Read any first person account of a European war up to and including the Second World War and you’ll find these kind of vignettes scattered through the savagery.

These little moments don’t mean that war is kinder, or nicer, or that towns didn’t get sacked and women raped. I guess they just show that all human things are a confused and nonsensical muddle. I get it that we see war through our own lens and that technological changes and Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam have killed all of the above, but for a fantasy writer I think this kind of madness is still relevant.


I think I’m just about ranted out.

The more I think about it, the more I’m sure the best way to capture war (if you haven’t been to one yourself) is through reading first person accounts.

Historians are great if you want to capture the movements of army groups and corps and supply and the thinking of generals, but I reckon diaries and letters are the real gold for an author. Ultimately the readers only really care about what our characters can see and feel and diaries are the perfect way to learn (i.e. steal) that stuff.

With that in mind I might chuck up a useful list of first person accounts soon.

Hope this pretentious essay helped someone out there!


(*) I’m humiliatingly Eurocentric. If you’ve got anything to add from another cultural perspective, please weight in! I’d love to hear it.

(**) Other than dead parents. What is it with fantasy and dead parents?

(***) Gold obviously doesn’t win wars. Manpower, wealth, the robustness of a state’s institutions, the industrialisation of the nations at war, population size etc etc wins wars, but gold is nice shorthand for this.

(****) One of my lecturers compared the ‘battles’ familiar to many of the Persian auxiliary troops to school fights. I.e there was a lot of shouting, posturing and milling around but not so much actual punching of faces.

(****) By this stage both men had lost an arm, so they were hardly armchair or keyboard warriors!

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