I’ve been reading a fascinating book (non-fiction) called The Invention of Science. It’s a scholarly tome that explores the intellectual revolution that took place in Europe between 1483 (or thereabouts) and 1750 (or thereabouts).
In 1483, the word “discovery” literally did not exist. The dominant culture held that the ancients (principally Aristotle and the Bible) had set forth the entirety of human knowledge. To be sure, there had been a few significant innovations prior to that time — the printing press, for one. But an important purpose of the printing press, in those early days, was to make the ancient wisdom more widely available.
And then Columbus stumbled upon two new continents that had been entirely unknown to the ancient authors. Suddenly, those sacrosanct authorities were revealed as not wearing trousers.
Our cultural values today are very different from the cultural values in 1500. Discoveries excite us. We expect (most of us do, anyhow) that the assertions of supposed authorities, ancient or modern, will be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other idea. Put under the microscope.
Seeing this cultural shift laid out so plainly led me to wonder: What are the dominant values of the cultures depicted in fantasy novels?
Sad to say, one of the dominant values in period fantasy (under which umbrella term I would include pretty much any book with swords in it) seems to be victory in combat. It’s not difficult to see why this might be the case. Plotted fiction demands conflict, and there is no more direct conflict you could put in a book than two guys with swords battling it out. If the culture in the novel placed a high value on, say, personal honor and caring for the weak, or on respect for tradition, or on the ability to sing and dance remarkably well, the conflict in the story (whatever it was) would lack the dramatic punch of a sword fight.
I guess I’m just not very interested in writing about sword fights. I find the whole subject of martial “arts” both tedious and degrading. What’s especially problematical is when the hero kills a bunch of bad guys, wipes the blood off of his sword, and goes on his merry way without a moment’s pause. Does he reflect on the grief he has caused to his victims’ families? No. Does he ask himself whether there might be some better solution to his problems than killing people? No. Does he suffer post-traumatic stress from seeing blood spurting from hideous wounds? Again, no. In far too much period fantasy, killing is, at least implicitly, an admirable activity.
We can do better. We can create a literature in which killing is not honored or glorified — a literature in which bloodshed is deplored, in which other values are held in higher esteem.
Yeah, once in a while your hero is going to have to kill somebody. But at least have the common decency to fill a page or two with his or her remorse and self-doubt.