Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Military Fantasy

Much Genre Fantasy concerns itself with warfare. Though J R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) can be seen as largely concerned with warfare, to think of it as MF would be to misread – which does not, of course, rule out LOTR's having been an influence on MF; the anachronistic specifics of its battle scenes and individual trials of arms, which combine the medieval/archaic with the modern, have been reproduced endlessly and faithfully. Mercenaries in (e.g.) the works of Glen Cook and Barbara Hambly combine attributes from those of the Hellenistic world, the early Italian Renaissance and the Thirty Years' War. Accordingly, the sense of warfare as a part of the historical process which we find in such books always approaches the Gameworld even when as competently and insightfully done as by these authors. Also, Cook's and Hambly's characters retain moral sense even if compelled by circumstances to perform dreadful acts. Not all MFs are as likeable. Tolkien's Maggots – e.g., his assumption that vice, if not virtue, can be intrinsic to race or species identity – are often reproduced more or less unthinkingly in MF (> Colour-Coding). Much of this is parodied by Mary Gentle in Grunts! (1992).

More attractively, warfare is often seen as a school which teaches hard and necessary lessons, as a moulder of character; it is likely to be a crucial experience for Ugly Ducklings, Brave Little Tailors and people who Learn Better. It is a set of situations in which the Sensible Man has the opportunity to show his sense and in which competence is a life-or-death matter. In the work of David Gemmell and many like him it is seen as intrinsically tragic; competent men are both created and destroyed by warfare, usually at the hand of others of their own kind. Richard Monaco's Parsival trilogy depicts this dilemma in bitingly satirical terms; Bernard King's Nordic-Fantasy sequence begun with Starkadder (1985) almost wallows in it.

Most MF pays insufficient attention to logistic problems and to, for example, the high-protein diet necessary to sustain a heavily armoured Knight. Hambly's Dark Hand of Magic (1990) and Elizabeth Moon's Paksennarion trilogy are notable for being among the few genre fantasies to pay serious attention to the practicalities of quartermastering. Albion (1991) by John Grant is rare in recognizing that an army made up in part of women should carry material for sanitary towels.

As noted, MF draws rather too eclectically on real-world military history and to forget that strategy and tactics reflect the class and economic structures, religion, ideology, technology and animal husbandry of the societies from which they spring. For example, Robert Jordan's cavalry charges in various of the battles in The Wheel of Time sequence (1990 onwards) are essentially drawn from the American Civil War, even though the battles in which they take place involve medieval or early-Renaissance levels of armament. Genre fantasy like this anyway usually adds Magic to the range of armaments available without any clear idea of how to represent it in terms of analogy with the real world. Magic is problematic partly because it is used as the equivalent of heavy artillery, chemical/bacteriological weapons or air power. It is hard for virtuous characters to retain sympathy when deploying such lethal weaponry except in the most desperate of cases, but if the magic remains unintegrated it is rendered irrelevant to the main issue, throwing the purpose of making the book a fantasy into question – except where, as in Glen Cook's Dread Empire sequence (1979 onwards), the argument is that, in Fantasyland as everywhere else, the point of a battle is ultimately that the poor bloody infantry have to gain or hold terrain, and all else is top-dressing. It is because of these difficulties that many fantasies announce arbitrarily the difficulty of using magic for military purposes or subject it to ideological or ethical constraints. Similar considerations often apply to the use of Dragons, whether intelligent or otherwise.

Almost all MF deals in land warfare. Naval combats usually take place off-stage except in narratives that deal with Pirates – Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides (1987), for example – and even these are rare. The Liavek series of Shared-World anthologies (1985-1990) ed Emma Bull and Will Shetterly coNtains stories on naval themes by Gene Wolfe and Walter Jon Williams (1953-    ). Air combat, even when managed with dragons or levitation spells, is even rarer in anything more than the crudest form; two recent exceptions are Kim Newman's The Bloody Red Baron (1995) and Felicity Savage's Ever (1996), two of whose principals are fighter aces in a magical equivalent of World War I where airplanes are demon-powered. [RK]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.