Been a long, long time since I hosted a guest post on here. I had the pleasure of meeting Brian at the last New York Comic Con. He’s a great guy who shares my love of brave warriors fighting against hopeless odds.
Not sure if any of you know, but I used to be a fair hand at kendo. It was one of the many things I gave up in order to make time to write, and I still miss it like hell. Miyamoto Musashi is a patron saint of that sport, so it’s good to see him mentioned here.
And SGT. Baker . . . well, let’s just say I never turn up my nose at a story of American heroism. Anyway, here’s Brian. I hope you enjoy the post, and that you’ll check out his forthcoming novel, THE EMPEROR’S BLADES when it’s released in January. Remember folks, 1st week’s sales make or break an author’s career, so if you are intending to buy this book at all, please consider pre-ordering it now so the numbers can count for Brian in that critical first week. Thanks.
You know what I’m talking about. It’s that scene. We’ve all read it. The hero or heroine is cornered. Maybe she’s holding a mountain pass against a horde of slavering orcs. Maybe he’s battling bare-handed with a legion of the damned. Maybe our fellowship of worthy companions, back to the wall, is squaring off against half-an-army of well-armed and foul-smelling evil-doers. The odds are impossibly long. The bookies are despairing because no one will bet on the good guys, even at 100 to 1. Then, when the blood starts to fly, a strange but predictable thing happens: the heroes don’t die. Despite the fury of the fighting, despite the savagery of the blows given and received, despite hacked limbs flying through the air like hunks of obliterated piñata, none of the heroes are hurt!
The complaint, of course, is that it’s not realistic. And it’s not. Maybe our guy, wielding a few daggers, would take down two or three goblins, but not a dozen. It’s possible that our heroine, armed with the right broadsword, could cut her way through a handful of bandits or lizard men, but she’d find herself overwhelmed by a score of them, right? Right?
Many extremely talented writers have taken this question to heart, with great results. The protagonists of George R.R. Martin suffer gruesome injuries in battle, if they survive at all. Same with J.V. Jones. Ditto Joe Abercrombie. Sometimes it seems like the characters in these novels can’t walk across the living room with losing a limb or catching a stray axe in the face. Which is refreshing. After all – bloodless fantasy in which all the central characters are untouchable gets dull fast. People like that don’t really exist.
Except they do.
Take, for example, Miyamoto Musashi, the seventeenth century Japanese swordsman and author of The Book of Five Rings. Unlike some apocryphal warriors, Musashi’s life is well documented – we even have scrolls he painted later in life – and his life story reads like something straight out of a fantasy novel. He fought, and won, his first duel at the age of thirteen. This became a trend.
Musashi took part in over sixty duels in his life and never lost. In 1604, he even fought three successive leaders of the Yoshioka School (the best martial arts school in Kyoto), defeating all of them. When the school’s remaining members came after him wanting revenge, he killed most of them, too, effectively destroying an entire academy of bad-asses, while also inventing a new style of sword-fighting in the process. In many of his later duels, Mushasi fought with a bokken, a wooden sword used for training, regardless of the weapon chosen by his foe. Despite also having fought in six pitched battles, he lived to be about sixty and died of natural causes.
Or we could make a huge leap in both space and time to consider Thomas A. Baker, a sergeant in the United States Army stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Baker was awarded the Medal of Honor, and rather than trying to do justice to his deeds, I will simply offer up his citation:
“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty at Saipan, Mariana Islands, 19 June to 7 July 1944. When his entire company was held up by fire from automatic weapons and small-arms fire from strongly fortified enemy positions that commanded the view of the company, Sgt. (then Pvt.) Baker voluntarily took a bazooka and dashed alone to within 100 yards of the enemy. Through heavy rifle and machine gun fire that was directed at him by the enemy, he knocked out the strong point, enabling his company to assault the ridge. Some days later while his company advanced across the open field flanked with obstructions and places of concealment for the enemy, Sgt. Baker again voluntarily took up a position in the rear to protect the company against surprise attack and came upon 2 heavily fortified enemy pockets manned by 2 officers and 10 enlisted men which had been bypassed. Without regard for such superior numbers, he unhesitatingly attacked and killed all of them. Five hundred yards farther, he discovered 6 men of the enemy who had concealed themselves behind our lines and destroyed all of them. On 7 July 1944, the perimeter of which Sgt. Baker was a part was attacked from 3 sides by from 3,000 to 5,000 Japanese. During the early stages of this attack, Sgt. Baker was seriously wounded but he insisted on remaining in the line and fired at the enemy at ranges sometimes as close as 5 yards until his ammunition ran out. Without ammunition and with his own weapon battered to uselessness from hand-to-hand combat, he was carried about 50 yards to the rear by a comrade, who was then himself wounded. At this point Sgt. Baker refused to be moved any farther stating that he preferred to be left to die rather than risk the lives of any more of his friends. A short time later, at his request, he was placed in a sitting position against a small tree . Another comrade, withdrawing, offered assistance. Sgt. Baker refused, insisting that he be left alone and be given a soldier’s pistol with its remaining 8 rounds of ammunition. When last seen alive, Sgt. Baker was propped against a tree, pistol in hand, calmly facing the foe. Later Sgt. Baker’s body was found in the same position, gun empty, with 8 Japanese lying dead before him. His deeds were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Army.”
Unlike Musashi, of course, Baker’s astounding bravery led to his death, but the fundamental point remains: these events, if presented as fiction, would strike many readers as wildly implausible, perhaps even impossible. And yet they happened. As Mark Twain put it, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
The situation is much the same when we consider, not individual heroics, but full battles. Most people know the story of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartans (and a few thousand other Greeks) held the pass against a vastly larger Persian Army. Historians have debated the exact size of the Persian force forever. The most conservative estimates put it around 70,000, while Herodotus insists on more than 2.5 million, with an equal number of support personnel. It hardly matters; the odds were clearly impossible, and yet the Greeks held out for three days. Better, the story comes complete with what has to be one of the best one-liners in history. When Dienekes, one of the Spartan warriors, was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that their arrows darkened the sun, he is said to have replied, “Then we will fight in the shade.” (Herodotus again, Histories, 7.226)
Almost equally famous were the battles of Agincourt and Cannae. In the former, the bedraggled and malnourished English army faced a French force at least five times their size (again, exact figures are hard to come by), a force with more horses and better armor – and utterly crushed them. At least ten French soldiers were killed for every member of Henry’s army.
Cannae, too, was an astoundingly lopsided battle. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general during the Second Punic War, faced off against the Romans, despite the fact that his force numbered roughly half theirs. According to the Roman historian Livy, when the dust cleared, 48,200 Romans were dead. Hannibal’s losses? Eight thousand.
I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here. The point is that history is filled with accounts like this, tales of bravery, defiance, and victory well beyond what we might imagine possible. This is something worth remembering for those of us writing fantasy. I’m not advocating untouchable knights on spotless white steeds. I’m not arguing for bloodless fantasy in which the protagonists never suffer or die. As I said above, I admire writers with the courage to let their characters suffer and die. I do, however, think we sometimes have the equation the wrong way. We shouldn’t be asking whether real life and the warriors we find there can live up to our favorite fantasies, but the other way around.
After teaching literature, philosophy, history, and religion for more than a decide, Brian began writing epic fantasy. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades (forthcoming from Tor on January 14, 2014), is the start of his series, Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. Tor.com has been good enough to release the first seven chapters as a teaser that can be found here.
Brian lives on a steep dirt road in the mountains of southern Vermont, where he divides his time between fathering, writing, husbanding, splitting wood, skiing, and adventuring, not necessarily in that order. He can be found on twitter at @brianstaveley, facebook as brianstaveley, and Google+ as Brian Staveley.