Feudalism and Modern Romantic Ideals Don’t Mix

I read an article on Tor.com a while back arguing for more modern relationship dynamics in fantasy. Specifically, the author was asking for more divorce since the honeymoon phase wears off for everyone at some point.

My first thought was along the lines of “oh, goody because I totally didn’t turn to fantasy books for escapism when my dad checked out.” My second thought was more of an anthropological “that probably won’t work.” Marital unions are too important to the traditional fantasy world structure.

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Should every fantasy world have female oppression or forced marriage or mandatory chastity? Quite the contrary. However, dumping modern practices into a historical setting with a pinch of magic is not a recipe for an “innovative” or “realistic” fantasy book. Social structures and rules develop in order to solve problems and most fantasy worlds have the same problems as ours did in those periods.

Normalized divorce and sexual liberation in a feudal society where marriage also represents trade agreements and war allegiance is just not possible. Sexual liberation in a world without contraceptives or protection from venereal disease is also really not a good idea. (And don’t you DARE slap a little magic on it and walk away. That’s just cheating.)

Though, to be fair, love matches for royals has never worked at any time in history (arguably even now). But those are still fairly common in fantasy literature. Historically, the middle and lower classes were more liberal, but even they tended to marry for material gain.

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All the same, in a world where you are constantly at or potentially at war, you’re going to depend on your family most of all to watch your back. In feudal societies, this has been universally true. That is why a woman’s marital fidelity was so important—to them, knowing who was related was quite literally a matter of life and death. It’s also why even homosexual individuals were expected to have children with heterosexual partners (check out Edward II and basically half the Roman elite).

The only way to reduce the importance of marriage and fidelity would be to have another way of determining one’s allegiance. Maybe all the people who talk to horses belong to one tribe and the ones who talk to falcons belong to another. There are many options.

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The point is, cultural taboos (right or wrong) are the results of a culture’s problems. When you solve the taboos, but not the problems, you just end up with a wacky world that is more Wonderland than Westeros. Fantasy authors are meant to have the best literary imaginations, so why can’t they imagine new solutions? Maybe writers should just take more anthropology classes, I don’t know.

Proposing to Her Majesty

It is established that I can be a stickler for historical/practical accuracy in fantasy literature. The basis for the rules of world structure and class are generally taken from history and I feel that a certain amount of rule-following adds a dash of authenticity. Albeit historical accuracy only holds only as much sway over fantasy literature as a particular author wants it to.

The latest transgression to have caught my notice is this—men in literature proposing to their ladylove who is a reigning monarch. Historically speaking, if a woman was the sole ruler of a country, it was actually her place to pop the question. (Don’t ask me “what if they were both reigning monarchs” because I don’t have any flipping idea.) Queen Victoria, for example, was the one to ask Prince Albert for his hand in marriage.

Granted most marriages were arranged, but if the woman was the country’s ruler, she still had final say. (Unless there was some complicated and political reason she had to say yes, but for the sake of this conversation, that doesn’t count.)

Unfortunately, this raises a while new problem. I have yet to read, watch, or hear of an instance where the woman proposes and I thought it was romantic. I’m sure there’s one out there, but let’s face it—the “aww” moments start when he gets down on one knee and asks her to spend the rest of her life with him. Always being the one expected to buy the ring and pop the question has got to be unfair to the guys somehow, but there it is.

So I suppose it is up to the author—do they want historical accuracy or to make the fangirls swoon?

Perhaps a way around it would be to have the love interest first ask the queen to marry him in private, away from the censuring eyes of courtiers and nobles, then have her ask him officially for the sake of decorum. That’s probably the best compromise.

Then again, I’m probably overthinking it. Even historical fiction frequently deviates from history for the sake of a better story, so I suppose I have no right to point the finger. Like I said, I feel historical tidbits in fantasy add a dash of authenticity, but in the end, it’s still up to the author.

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“More girls should go on adventures”

A while back a seven year old young lady by the name of Charlotte sent this letter to the LEGO corporation.

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It reminded me of a blog post I read by Maggie Stiefvater about how, growing up, she didn’t have crushes on the male action-adventure leads, she wanted to be them. When I read that, I had a “You, too? I thought I was the only one!” moment.

Now, I have never wanted to be a boy. As a little girl, I was required to always wear dresses (not as unfair as it sounds, a long story), even with my jeans. I played with Barbies (G.I. Joe dolls, too), had tea parties, loved fairies (still do), and was a fan of every Disney princess. But none of that stopped me from rolling in the mud, climbing into trees, crawling under barbwire fences, building forts out of juniper trees, wrestling goats, and exploring our woods. I was a tomboy extraordinaire.

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Amid my earliest memories are recollections of my father watching the likes of Conan the Barbarian, Gladiator, The Patriot, Braveheart, Sharpe’s Rifles, every John Wayne movie in existenceyou get the gist. I grew up on intense action flicks with kick@$$ leads who took on crime bosses, monsters, empires, killer super robots, and whole armies. (Xena was somewhere in there, too, but I barely remember any of her stuff.) For the most part, the guys were the ones who got to have all the “fun” while the girls (with a few scant exceptions) got to sit at home holding down the fort until the party was over or, worse, waited to be rescued.

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Like Ms. Stiefvater said it was for her, I related most to the male leads, the ones who did the swashbuckling and running down of outlaws. I didn’t want the knight in shining armor to rescue me, I wanted him to watch my back when I went to slay the dragon. I wanted to do what the heroes did—save the day. Who am I kidding? I still do. I am a girl in her late teens who has daily fantasies of casting down empires, leading armies, and pulling the sword from the stone.

I heartily agree with Miss Charlotte. This world most certainly does need more girls who go on adventures.

Fantasy Writing 101: The Principles of War by Carl von Clausewitz

I’ve often wondered about the “right” way to conduct a battle. It seemed important to at least know the basics of strategy for my stories and when The Principles of War came up on my required reading list, I found out that it was a great resource for just that. So here are a few important highlights, the parts that seemed most relevant to fantasy writing.

Pawns go first

Clausewitz: We must not be easily led to use [the cavalry] in open combat. Only when the enemy’s disorder or his rapid retreat offer the hope of success, should we use our cavalry for an audacious attack.

While cavalry charges make for dramatic openers to conflict scenes and are very popular in literature and film, they are impractical as an organized infantry force could repel horsemen with devastating consequences (as proven by the Scots). But if the infantry is in disarray, cavalry can easily be the fatal blow.

Wait for daylight—or don’t

Clausewitz: The regular surprise attack (by night as at Hochkirk) is the best way to get the most out of a very small army. But the aggressor, who is not as well acquainted with the terrain as the defender, is open to many risks. The less well one knows the terrain and the preparations of the enemy, the greater these risks become. In many instances, therefore, these attacks must be considered only as a desperate means.

So, to sum up, you shouldn’t attack at night unless you know the battleground well enough that the dark won’t be a problem.

Surrounding them may not be a good idea

Clausewitz: Encirclement of the enemy necessitates a greater deployment of forces in the front line for the aggressor than the defender

Clausewitz: To surround an army completely is possible only in rare cases and requires tremendous physical or moral superiority.

Encircling an enemy spreads the attacking forces thinner and means the surrounded army will be able to draw up into tighter, more stable formation. And we’ve all heard of the (insert preferred nationality) firing squad.

Do not let them get away

Clausewitz: Next to victory, the act of pursuit is the most important in war.

If I remember correctly, one of his general’s failure to follow this rule was what ultimately did Napoleon in. Letting the enemy regroup is a bad idea because it is possible for them to reorganize and renew their attack. Clausewitz also gives a small how-to on this, but that’s for another time.

Always have a way out

Clausewitz: Only when we cut off the enemy’s line of retreat are we assured of great success in victory

Getting cornered will either force a surrender or enable a massacre and has led to the destruction of armies since the days of the ancient Greeks. This might seem a little obvious, but it’s still important enough to mention.

And there you have it—the bare bones of the great Prussian colonel’s advice. I would certainly recommend the whole book itself (whether you’re a fantasy writer or not), but until you can, here’s the crash course.