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Chansons de Geste in Modern Epic Fantasy: Carlisle’s Troubadours, “Eric & Frett”

Inspiration of Medieval Lang & Lit: Chansons de Geste (Crusader Sea Walls, Acre)

Inspiration of Medieval Lang & Lit: Chansons de Geste (Crusader Sea Walls, Acre)

Chansons de Geste in Modern Epic Fantasy: Carlisle’s Troubadours, “Eric & Frett” 

Good Morning, Everyone!

Now that we’ve seen a variety of chansons de geste, here’s an excerpt showing how those thousand-year-old “songs of deeds” appear in my own work; here, in a scene from The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears, one of my main characters, the Muslim scholar, Khajen ibn-Khaldun, meets a troubadour in the aftermath of the Battle of Mecina.

I hope you enjoy, and remember, the e-book’s on sale at Amazon.com; 792 pages for only $3.99! http://www.amazon.com/The-Codex-Lacrimae-Part-2

Thanks for visiting,

A.J.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (Crusader Castle of the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (Crusader Castle of the Krak des Chevaliers, Syria)

A.J. Carlisle, "The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 2: The Book of Tears"

A.J. Carlisle, “The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 2: The Book of Tears”

[Excerpt, © 2013-2014 A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears, Bk. 3, Chapter 4 “The Orphans of Mecina” (pp. 41-43) http://www.amazon.com/The-Codex-Lacrimae-Part-2:

Ibn-Khaldun recalled the dawn of that morning five years ago at Mecina, when he, Arcadian, and Mercedier had approached the scored limestone of the demolished curtain wall.

Against a backdrop of fires blazing high from the castle, a colorfully dressed jester sat playing a fiddle on a pile of rubble.

The music drifted, hauntingly beautiful over a ruined landscape still filled with the sounds of injured and dying people, the shouts of rescue personnel, burning buildings, and even the hastening clip-clop of horses being led to safer pastures.

When the musician turned to the approaching Hospitallers, the small contingent saw that he seemed blind, the shadows cast by a foppish hat not concealing a linen rag across his left eye.

Inspiration of Medieval Literature & Language: Chansons de Geste, "Minstrels Playing Oud & Rabab" (illum. ms, "Cantigas de Santa Maria," 13th century)

Inspiration of Medieval Literature & Language: Chansons de Geste, “Minstrels Playing Oud & Rabab” (illum. ms, “Cantigas de Santa Maria,” 13th century)

Moreover, the performer radiated pain. He appeared to be a person completely shattered by war, whose pockmarked and thinly black-bearded face, ragged clothing, and haggard aspect made for an altogether strange counterpoint to the exquisite melodies flowing from the strings of his Hardingfele.

The trio dismounted the stallions and hiked up the pile of rubble.

Bonjour, messieurs!” The jester said with a flourishing bow. He grandiosely doffed the fancy hat, but overthrew and lost it into a nearby fire. He frowned as the article briefly blazed, then shrugged and spread his hands.

Je suis Eric le Marin — Eric the Seafarer — et c’est Frett, un ami de longue date et tout un harpiste accomplie, jongleur, et zitherer!”

Mercedier grunted. “You’re alone, mon ami. Were you —”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste, "Troubadour Perdignon Playing his Fiddle" (Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. 854, fol. 49; 13th century)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste, “Troubadour Perdignon Playing his Fiddle” (Bibliothèque nationale de France, ms. 854, fol. 49; 13th century)

Seul?” The man croaked. “Certainement pas! Frett and I entertain together, always.” His voice gained in strength as he leaned forward to speak in a stage whisper. “Et, entre nous cinq, nous espérons que vous venez de meilleure humeur que les Sarrasins qui vient de quitter ici.” (“And just between the five of us, we hope you’re in a better mood than the Saracens who just departed here!”)

“I think the man over here is…was ‘Frett.’ ”Ibn-Khaldun said,nodding at a corpse slumped to the side of the boulder.

Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Eric asked in alarm, following the Muslim’s eyes until his own came to rest on the body of his friend. “Ah, Frett, non, non, non! No sleeping now! A song, a song!”

“Did you…drag him here?” The grandmaster asked. “From the castle?”

“No, no, that would be mad, wouldn’t it?” Eric replied conversationally, even while he strained to lift Frett’s body into an upright position.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Fairy Folk & Tales ("Tataka Attacks," from the Ramayana, art by Omar Rayyan, 2012)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Fairy Folk & Tales (“Tataka Attacks,” from the Ramayana, art by Omar Rayyan, 2012)

“If he were dead,” the jongleur continued, “why, I’d have left him in the courtyard on Santini’s pyre, just like all the others did. There are enough corpses back there for both the Sidhe and Nightmare Lord to feast upon. Our friends piled them on the flames before they took their walk to the Genoese ships. To the sea. Hah! Don’t worry about us. He’s just tired and feeling a bit … displaced. We’re glad to see you. It means that we can start fixing everything, rebuild our home.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons ("Adhemar of Le Puy with Holy Lance," British Library, Yates Thompson Collection, No. 12, f. 29)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons (“Adhemar of Le Puy with Holy Lance,” British Library, Yates Thompson Collection, No. 12, f. 29)

Eric’s tugging on his friend’s unmoving torso dislodged Frett’s head, and the troubadour bolted to catch it before the decapitated thing rolled down the slope.

Non, non, non …” he said fiercely. “You need to be back here on the shoulders, Frett, stop falling off —”

“Enough!” Mercedier shouted, intercepting the man’s wrist as Eric tried to complete his work. The soldier’s tone quieted as he took the head from Eric, and returned it to the ground in proximity to the corpse. He covered both with a discarded cloak. “Enough, ami. Enough. He’s gone.”

Non,” Eric said, wrenching away and hoisting his fiddle under his chin. He drew the bow across the strings on the mother-of-pearl fingerboard. “I can still hear the song he taught us during the siege. A soothsaying song, or I’m a fool. Listen. I’ll prove it:

Inspiration of Medieval Art: "Siege of Pamplona, 778" ("L'entree d'Espagne," 14th c. miniature; Venice, Biblioteca nazionale marciana, St. Mark's Library)

Inspiration of Medieval Art: “Siege of Pamplona, 778” (“L’entree d’Espagne,” 14th c. miniature; Venice, Biblioteca nazionale marciana, St. Mark’s Library)

Sur la Barbe de Mimir, dans la Jeunesse des Mondes,
De Crânes de Jotuns, à la Dent de Ran Coralliens,
Cherché les Aesir — les frères, Vili, Vé, et Odin —
La Sagesse Antique, Neuf Reliques en Ruine.

Dessous de Givré Pins, sur un loin Côte Ardeur,
Près de Glade Elfique, par la Porte Surtur,
Frappe le Marteau du Volund — voir Destins Enlacés! —
Par le Forgeron Sampo, Codices Neuf récuperés…

The effort seemed to exhaust the fiddler. He stopped abruptly, and returned in a heap to his boulder.

“There’s more, but it’s dark and sad, and this is a bad enough day already. Oh, just leave the wretched youth be,” the survivor pleaded, then pressed a palm against his temple. “Oh, très bien, je vais leur dire, si vous voulez être tranquille!

Arcadian and Mercedier exchanged glances.

“Who are you telling to be quiet?” Mercedier asked.

“The Sidhe.”

“The Shee?” The cynical Frenchman repeated. “What’s that?”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Fairy Folk & Tales ("The Brown Fairy Book," Omar Rayyan, Folio Society)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Fairy Folk & Tales (“The Brown Fairy Book,” Omar Rayyan, Folio Society)

“Not what, who, and they’re in my head, all the time now.” Eric’s bow dangled limply in his slack hand. He exhaled slowly. “I think the Nightmare Lord is partial to musicians — oh, how these Sidhe wail! His sendings barely let Frett or I sleep for more than a couple hours at a time once the siege began.” He paused. “Et, I confess: Frett didn’t make up the song. I did. I just tried to write what the Sidhe were screaming in my mind all … the … time. I soothsay to you: Santini’s fall becomes your ruin if you bring him with you! Hela walks this land, Surtur begins his bid for freedom, and the boy must face them alone.”

Eric shook his head, his voice so calm and rationale in its tone that Ibn-Khaldun forced himself to remember the seeming madness of a few moments earlier.

“ ‘A deluded child,’ ”the troubadour continued, “that’s what Veröld Martröd called him in the end. I think only I heard the words. The Nightmare Lord’s so far away, but he’s returning, he’s returning. They’ll all return, now. Urd didn’t have the heart to end it at the Fields of Burning Night, and now all the enemies will return. Ancient enemies.”

He cast a long gaze at the smoldering curtain wall.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Nimrod Fortress," or Qala'at al-Subeiba, a Crusader castle on Mt. Hermon, Israel — named after the Biblical hunter)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Nimrod Fortress,” or Qala’at al-Subeiba, a Crusader castle on Mt. Hermon, Israel — named after the Biblical hunter)

Medieval Lang & Lit: Chansons de Geste: "Bohemond alone mounts the rampart of Antioch" (Gustave Doré, d. 1883)

Medieval Lang & Lit: Chansons de Geste: “Bohemond alone mounts the rampart of Antioch” (Gustave Doré, d. 1883)

“Monsieur Martröd’s Sidhe have been repeating much the same thing, mocking the boy, taunting us all.” Eric raised his voice. “I soothsay thus: Santini was orphaned while still at home, but knew it not — let reality catch him and take its due. Such is the nature of sacred quests, eh? Interfere, though, and worlds will be worse for it later — doomed. He wasn’t meant to be here, nor to survive this siege. All is changed. The worlds will burn with a fire like the heart of Creation itself….

“Ignore him, he’s crazy,” Mercedier said, nodding to where a fountain still splashed peacefully on corpses floating in its waters. “Look at this place — everything seems doomed, and Santini’s lying through there, dead.”

“…this is the world that awaits us all,” Eric continued in disgust,“both franj and Saracen alike. My dear, dear Frett — why did you have to stay up so late and play with those nasty Sidhe? They came for him, they came for Santini and you distracted them. You…lost your head!”

The jester barked a laugh, then convulsed into sobs as he saw Arcadian and Mercedier tightening the reins on their stallions. “You go? You leave poor Frett and his Eric? Ah, c’est une bonne chose, ce qui est bon. Je comprends. Nous ne sommes plus comme un couple heureux. Nous sommes actuellement trois.” (“Ah, that’s a good thing, for the best. I understand. We no longer live as a happy couple. We are now three.”)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Destruction of German Crusade by Seljuk Turks at 2nd Battle of Dorylaeum")

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Destruction of German Crusade by Seljuk Turks at 2nd Battle of Dorylaeum”)

He leaned against the boulder and again took up the instrument. “You’ll find Santini in there. My last warning to you, a gift of the Sidhe screaming their frustration in my head: beware his finding a book that weeps, or a sword that sings — each alone is chaos. Together? Murder and madness that can be healed only by a cup of blood!”

The fiddler’s words receded into a titter as he returned to his music. “A cup of blood, the chrism of kings. Et, that’s only three of six, before the line that bars all nine … Ha! Break time’s over, Frett! Grab your harp, and get to work, you Lazybones….”

He began to play again, but while the Hospitaller brothers moved on to ascend the hill that led to the destroyed front gate, Ibn-Khaldun remained to listen.

This time, he noticed, along with repeating the first verses, Eric the Seafarer finished the song.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Tarente,"L. Gallait, 1840)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Capture of Antioch by Bohemond of Tarente,”L. Gallait, 1840)

“That man’s broken by war,” Mercedier muttered when Ibn-Khaldun rejoined him. The Muslim scholar said nothing, still thoughtfully regarding Eric.

“He seems to soothsay well,” Ibn-Khaldun observed. “Those images seemed specific.”

Vraiment, Khajen? Really?” Mercedier blanched, then in a slightly mocking tone recited the first verse:

Upon Ymir’s Beard, in World’s Youth,
From Jotun’s Skulls, to Ran’s Coral Tooth,
Sought the Aesir — Odin, Vili, and Ve —
Nine Runed Relics, Wisdom’s Way.

“That’s prophesying to you? It sounds like gibberish!”

The old man’s eyebrows raised in amusement. “For gibberish, you repeated it quite well.”

“Bah. I’m still a monk, and I do listen, Khajen.” He jerked a thumb at the mourning jester. “I tell you, he’s in shock from losing his friend, and his words are absurde.”

“We’ll see.”

“Wait. What are you doing? Where are you going now?”

“Back to Eric for a moment. To write it down.”

Mon Dieu, Khajen. This place is a war zone. Can we at least get inside the castle and see for ourselves?”

“Look around, mon ami, the battle’s over, and no one’s going anywhere. I’ll be back shortly. Something tells me that this song is important. Something in the man’s … presence.”

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("The First Crusade," 14th or 15th C. ms. illust.)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“The First Crusade,” 14th or 15th C. ms. illust.)

Mercedier and Arcadian waited for him to return, but it was a quarter hour before he joined them. Even with shorthand, it took many tries until Eric could repeat the song in its entirety, rather than fragmented phrases.

Finis?” Mercedier asked.

Kneeling Crusader (British Library, Royal 2 A. XXII., f.220; England (Westminster or St. Albans, c. 1250)

Kneeling Crusader (British Library, Royal 2 A. XXII., f.220; England (Westminster or St. Albans, c. 1250)

“For now — I may speak to him again on the way out. Merci.”

The trio passed through the gigantic smoking gap in the wall next to the ruined front gate, emerging into a nightmarish scene.

Hospitallers seemed to be everywhere; the white crosses on their black robes and surcoats the only symbol of order in the chaos.

Pinkish-white smoke billowed into the lightening, rose-colored skies of dawn as the kitchens and stables continued to burn. Some castle servants ran in panic past the blazing timbers and hay bales that fueled the fires, while more composed knights carried bodies to mass graves in the nearby Syrian hills … . [End excerpt, A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears; http://www.amazon.com/The-Codex-Lacrimae-Part-2]

Next Time: Romance & Chivalry in Medieval Literature!

Greeting Autumn with Elric & Moonglum!

Greeting Autumn with Elric & Moonglum!

Good Evening, Everyone,

Autumnal equinox just past outside, epic fantasy reminiscing inside.

Let’s welcome the change of season with an excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Michael Moorcock, in the opening scene from The Sleeping Sorceress.  

Here, Elric and Moonglum are in pursuit of Theleb K’aarna, a sorcerer of the Pan Tang Isles, and the season is autumn:

Michael Moorcock, "Stormbringer" (art by Michael Whelan)

Michael Moorcock, “Stormbringer” (art by Michael Whelan)

Michael Moorcock, The Sleeping Sorceress

Michael Moorcock, The Sleeping Sorceress

Excerpt from Michael Moorcock, Elric: The Sleeping Sorceress (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 3) http://www.amazon.com/Elric-Sleeping-Sorceress

Chapter One: Pale Prince on a Moonlit Shore

In the sky a cold moon, cloaked in clouds, sent down faint light that fell upon a sullen sea where a ship lay at anchor off an uninhabited coast.

From the ship a boat was being lowered. It swayed in its harness.

Two figures, swathed in long capes, watched the seamen lowering the
boat while they, themselves, tried to calm horses which stamped their
hoofs on the unstable deck and snorted and rolled their eyes.

The shorter figure clung hard to his horse’s bridle and grumbled.

“Why should this be necessary? Why could not we have disembarked
at Trepesaz? Or at least some fishing harbour boasting an inn,
however lowly . . .”

“Because, friend Moonglum, I wish our arrival in Lormyr to be secret.

If Theleb K’aarna knew of my coming—as he soon would if we
went to Trepesaz—then he would fly again and the chase would begin
afresh. Would you welcome that?”

The Elric Saga (Michael Moorcock; artist, Robert Gould)

The Elric Saga (Michael Moorcock; artist, Robert Gould)

Moonglum shrugged. “I still feel that your pursuit of this sorcerer
is no more than a surrogate for real activity. You seek him because you
do not wish to seek your proper destiny . . .”

Elric turned his bone-white face in the moonlight and regarded
Moonglum with crimson, moody eyes. “And what of it? You need not
accompany me if you do not wish to . . .”

Again, Moonglum shrugged his shoulders. “Aye. I know. Perhaps
I stay with you for the same reasons that you pursue the sorcerer of Pan
Tang.” He grinned. “So that’s enough of debate, eh, Lord Elric?”

“Debate achieves nothing,” Elric agreed. He patted his horse’s nose
as more seamen, clad in colourful Tarkeshite silks, came forward to
take the horses and hoist them down to the waiting boat.

Michael Moorcock, "The Dreamthief's Daughter" (art by Robert Gould)

Michael Moorcock, “The Dreamthief’s Daughter” (art by Robert Gould)

Struggling, whinnying through the bags muffling their heads, the
horses were lowered, their hoofs thudding on the bottom of the boat as
if they would stave it in. Then Elric and Moonglum, their bundles on
their backs, swung down the ropes and jumped into the rocking craft.

The sailors pushed off from the ship with their oars and then, bodies
bending, began to row for the shore.

The late autumn air was cold. Moonglum shivered as he stared
towards the bleak cliffs ahead. “Winter is near and I’d rather be domiciled
at some friendly tavern than roaming abroad. When this business
is done with the sorcerer, what say we head for Jadmar or one of the
other big Vilmirian cities and see what mood the warmer clime puts us
in?”

But Elric did not reply. His strange eyes stared into the darkness and they seemed to be peering into the depths of his own soul and not liking what they saw.

Michael Moorcock, Elric: Sailor on the Seas of Fate (by Michael Whelan)

Michael Moorcock, Elric: Sailor on the Seas of Fate (by Michael Whelan)

Moonglum sighed and pursed his lips. He huddled deeper in his cloak and rubbed his hands to warm them. He was used to his friend’s sudden lapses of silence, but familiarity did not make him enjoy them
any better. From somewhere on the shore a nightbird shrieked and a small animal squealed. The sailors grunted as they pulled on their oars.

The moon came out from behind the clouds and it shone on Elric’s grim, white face, made his crimson eyes seem to glow like the coals of hell, revealed the barren cliffs of the shore.

The sailors shipped their oars as the boat’s bottom ground on shingle. The horses, smelling land, snorted and moved their hoofs. Elric and Moonglum rose to steady them.

Two seamen leapt into the cold water and brought the boat up
higher. Another patted the neck of Elric’s horse and did not look directly
at the albino as he spoke. “The captain said you would pay me
when we reached the Lormyrian shore, my lord.”

Moorcock, Elric: Swords and Rose (art by John Picacio)

Moorcock, Elric: Swords and Rose (art by John Picacio)

Elric grunted and reached under his cloak. He drew out a jewel that shone brightly through the darkness of the night. The sailor gasped and stretched out his hand to take it. “Xiombarg’s blood, I have never seen so fine a gem!”

Elric began to lead the horse into the shallows and Moonglum hastily followed him, cursing under his breath and shaking his head from side to side.

Laughing among themselves, the sailors shoved the boat back into deeper water.

As Elric and Moonglum mounted their horses and the boat pulled through the darkness towards the ship, Moonglum said: “That jewel was worth a hundred times the cost of our passage!”

“What of it?” Elric fitted his feet in his stirrups and made his horse walk towards a part of the cliff which was less steep than the rest. He stood up in his stirrups for a moment to adjust his cloak and settle himself
more firmly in his saddle. “There is a path here, by the look of it. Much overgrown.”

Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock

“I would point out,” Moonglum said bitterly, “that if it were left to you, Lord Elric, we should have no means of livelihood at all. If I had not taken the precaution of retaining some of the profits made from the sale of that trireme we captured and auctioned in Dhakos, we should be paupers now.”

“Aye,” returned Elric carelessly, and he spurred his horse up the path that led to the top of the cliff.

In frustration Moonglum shook his head, but he followed the albino.

[End excerpt, Michael Moorcock, The Sleeping Sorceress, pp. 1-2]

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 7 (Conclusion) — Depictions of Medieval & Modern Violence

An Author’s Journey: Worlds of Medieval Literature (2) Chansons de Geste, Pt. 7 (Conclusion) — Depictions of Medieval & Modern Violence

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit" ("The Clouds Burst," by Michael Hague, 1984)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit” (“The Clouds Burst,” by Michael Hague, 1984)

Good Morning, Everyone!

For creators and readers who are desperate for new approaches to epic-fantasy, in this series of blogs on the chansons de geste I’ve cast back to the minstrels of a thousand years ago to reveal depictions of violence and warfare that achieve both verisimilitude and entertainment.  During times of escalating bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, those depictions too-often become a barrage of images and videos launched via social media networks whose reach truly seems global, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

These themes of violence and warfare can be ignored neither in the reality of our 24/7 news cycle, nor by epic fantasy writers who depend on dramatic conflicts between protagonists and antagonists to tell an adventure tale.  Indeed, ever since J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis created the epic fantasy genre back in the 1930s through 1950s — with tweaks and improvements made by Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Fritz Leiber, et all —  violence and warfare have been consistent elements of the epic/high fantasy form.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit" ("The Clouds Burst," by Michael Hague, 1984)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit” (“The Clouds Burst,” by Michael Hague, 1984)

That is, whereas Tolkien and Lewis respectively created Middle Earth and Narnia as faux-medieval worlds that mirrored northern European medieval lands c. 500-1500 A.D., many of their stories also evoked crises and realities of the Modern Age.  Remember, Tolkien himself fought in World War I, and all biographers & studies of the creator of the epic fantasy genre have included this relevant detail in assessing the martial aspects (and intimations of a soldier’s life) that appear in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  On many levels, both works may be seen as cautionary tales against warfare, even though the narratives of both works culminate in massive battles that forever change the political, social, and physical landscapes of different parts of Middle Earth (respectively, the region around Erebor, and the area of Gondor/Mordor).

Also, depending on how much you’ll allow an author’s own life to inform his creation, much of Tolkien’s own experiences in the military can be gleaned from his works.  For example, one reading of Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit, might see in the main combatants of the Battle of the Five Armies resonances of the forces that informed Tolkien’s own life; in the case of the original novel, the alliance of Dwarves/Elves/Men/Eagles vs. the Goblins/Wargs could therefore be seen as respective proxies for the Allies vs. Germany in World War I.  On the other, hand, ever-present in Tolkien’s works of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are descriptions of the physical and emotional toll taken upon the combatants who step onto the field of battle, and the lifetime of sorrow and grief that some war veterans might experience (e.g., the PTSD-like transformations that occur in Bilbo and Frodo by each story’s end).

Here’s an excerpt from each book to help us see how Tolkien, the Anglo-Saxon medievalist, described aspect of what he’d seen in an early 20th Century that was coming to grips with the realities of modern warfare:

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit" ("The Battle of Five Armies," art by Matt Stewart, Tolkien Gateway)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit” (“The Battle of Five Armies,” art by Matt Stewart, Tolkien Gateway)

[Begin excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Ch. 17, “The Clouds Burst”]:

…Thorin wielded his axe with mighty strokes, and nothing seemed to harm him.

“To me! To me! Elves and Men! To me! O my kinsfolk!” he cried, and his voice shook like a horn in the valley.

Down, heedless of order, rushed all the dwarves of Dain to his help. Down too came many of the Lake-men, for Bard could not restrain them; and out upon the other side came many of the spearmen of the elves. Once again the goblins were stricken in the valley; and they were piled in heaps till Dale was dark and hideous with their corpses. The Wargs were scattered and Thorin drove right against the bodyguard of Bolg. But he could not pierce their ranks.

Already behind him among the goblin dead lay many men and many dwarves, and many a fair elf that should have lived yet long ages merrily in the wood. And as the valley widened his onset grew ever slower. His numbers were too few.  His flanks were unguarded. Soon the attackers were attacked, and they were forced into a great ring, facing every way, hemmed all about with goblins and wolves returning to the assault. The bodyguard of Bolg came howling against them, and drove in upon their ranks like waves upon cliffs of sand…

On all this Bilbo looked with misery. He had taken his stand on Ravenhill among the Elves — partly because there was more chance of escape from that point, and partly (with the more Tookish part of his mind) because if was going to be in a desperate last stand, he preferred on the whole to defend the Elvenking.  Gandalf, too, I may say, was there, sitting on the ground as if in deep thought, preparing, I suppose, some last blast of magic before the end.

That did not seem far off. “It will not be long now,” thought Bilbo, “before the goblins win the Gate, and we are all slaughtered or driven down or captured. Really it is enough to make one weep, after all one has gone through. I would rather old Smaug had been left with all the wretched treasure, than that these vile creatures should get it, and poor old Bombur, and Balin and Fili and Kili and all the rest come to a bad end; and Bard, too, and the Lake-men and the merry elves.  Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious, It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.” [End excerpt, Tolkien, The Hobbit

…and here, from Tolkien’s The Return of the King (1955), a moment during the Siege of Gondor whose horror resonates both modern and medieval uses of terror:

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Siege of Minas Tirith," by John Howe)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Siege of Minas Tirith,” by John Howe)

[Begin excerpt] … The Gate [of Minas Tirith] was shut. All night watchmen on the walls heard the rumour of the enemy that roamed outside, burning field and tree, and hewing any man that they found abroad, living or dead. The numbers that had already passed over the River could not be guessed in the darkness, but when morning, or its dim shadow, stole over the plain, it was seen that even fear by night had scarcely over-counted them. The plain was dark with their marching companies, and as far as eyes could strain in the mirk there sprouted, like a foul fungus-growth, all about the beleaguered city great camps of tents, black or sombre red.

Busy as ants hurrying orcs were digging, digging lines of deep trenches in a huge ring, just out of bowshot of the walls; and as the trenches were made each was filled with fire, though how it was kindled or fed, by art or deviltry, none could see. All day the labour went forward, while the men of Minas Tirith look on, unable to hinder it.  And as each length of trench was completed, the could see great wains [wagons] approaching; and soon yet more companies of the enemy were swiftly setting up, each behind the cover of a trench, great engines for the casting of missiles.  There were none upon the City walls large enough to reach so far or to stay the work.

At first men laughed and did not greatly fear such devices. For the main wall of the City was of great height and marvelous thickness, built ere the power and craft of Numénor waned in exile; and its outward face was like to the Tower of Orthanc, hard and dark and smooth, unconquerable by steel or fire, unbreakable except by some convulsion that would rend the very earth on which it stood.

“Nay,” they said, “not if the Nameless One himself should come, not even he could enter here while we yet live.” But some answered: “While we yet live? How long? He has a weapon that has brought low many strong places since the world began. Hunger. The roads are cut. Rohan will not come.”

But the engines did not waste shot upon the indomitable wall. It was no brigand or orc-chieftain that ordered the assault upon the Land of Mordor’s greatest foe. A power and mind of malice guided it. As soon as the catapults were set, with many yells and the creaking of rope and winch, they began to throw missiles marvelously high, so that they passed right above the battlement and fell thudding within the first circle of the City; and many of them by some secret art burst into flame as they came toppling down

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Siege of Minas Tirith," by the Brothers Hildebrandt)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Siege of Minas Tirith,” by the Brothers Hildebrandt)

Soon there was great peril of fire behind the wall, and all who could be spared were busy quelling flames that sprang up in many places. Then among the greater casts there fell another hail, less ruinous but more horrible. All about the streets and lanes behind the Gate it tumbled down, small round shot that did not burn. But when men ran to learn what it might be, they cried aloud or wept. For the enemy was flinging into the City all the heads of those who had fallen fighting at Osgiliath, or on the Rammas, or in the fields. They were grim to look on; for though some were crushed and shapeless, and some had been cruelly hewn, yet many had features that could be told, and it seemed that they had died in pain; and all were branded with the foul token of the Lidless Eye.  But marred and dishonoured as they were, it often chanced that thus a man would see again the face of someone that he had known, who had walked proudly once in arms, or tilled the fields, or ridden in upon a holiday from the green vales in the hills.

In vain men shook their fists at the pitiless foes that swarmed before the Gate. Curses they heeded not, nor understood the tongues of western men, crying with harsh voices like beasts and carrion birds. But soon there were few left in Minas Tirith who had the heart to stand up and defy the hosts of Mordor. For yet another weapon, swifter than hunger, the Lord of the Dark Tower had: dread and despair.

The Nazgûl came again, and as their Dark Lord now grew and put forth his strength, so their voices, which uttered only his will and his malice, were filled with evil and horror. Ever they circled above the City, like vultures that expect their fill of doomed men’s flesh. Out of sight and shot they flew, and yet were ever present, and their deadly voices rent the air. More unbearable they became, not less, at each new cry.  At length, even the stout-hearted would fling themselves to the ground as the hidden menace passed over them, letting their weapons fall from nerveless hands while into their minds a blackness came, and they thought no more of war, but only of hiding and crawling, and of death. [End Excerpt, J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Book V, Ch. 4 “The Siege of Gondor,” pp. 95-96]

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Return of the King" ("The Siege of Gondor," by Alan Lee)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Return of the King” (“The Siege of Gondor,” by Alan Lee)

Were Tolkien’s descriptions of decapitated heads in these passages informed by the First Crusade siege of Antioch in 1096? The Siege of Malta in 1565? Did the trench-digging and siege-devices reflect his own experiences in the Great War of 1914-1918? Or was the despair that radiated from the flying Nazgûl a reflection of 1940 Europe, when much of the Continent had fallen to Nazi Germany and Britain was being bombed in the Blitz?  Whether the source was medieval or modern, the effects in this literary passage can’t help but resonate even through to 2014, almost 60 years after the publication of RotK. Tolkien’s description of the various means of waging war, both physically and psychologically, finds an analogue in today’s world on many levels; the most obvious is the resonance between ancient ways of causing fear and modern means of terror ― whether or not it was wooden catapults launching decapitated heads into a walled city or viral YouTube videos of ISIS murdering captives, one could argue that the effect is similar, and perhaps more widespread in a technological age where millions of people can be effected/traumatized by such scenes.

Back to the medieval literature component here and its connection to epic fantasy, especially Bilbo’s line, “Misery me! I have heard songs of many battles, and I have always understood that defeat may be glorious, It seems very uncomfortable, not to say distressing. I wish I was well out of it.”

The “glorious” aspect of war and violence to which Tolkien/Bilbo refers is the medieval literary tradition of the chansons de geste (“songs of deeds”), and in this moment of The Hobbit before the eagles come, the corpses of allies and foes that line the valley in front of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, give the lie to the fantasies sung by minstrels. (Or, in our context, the CGI-informed violence in films and video games, or celebratory mayhem in some slash-and-gore approaches to fantasy literature.)

Inspiration of Medieval Literature: The Song of Roland:  "Charlemagne Finds Roland" (14th C. French miniature)

Inspiration of Medieval Literature: The Song of Roland: “Charlemagne Finds Roland” (14th C. French miniature)

As I close this series on the “chansons de geste,” let’s take look at one of the most violent scenes in this literary genre from 900 years ago, both (1) to show the kind of explicitly medieval sources that informed Tolkien’s work (again, he was an Anglo-Saxonist, well-versed in the literature of 900-1200), and also (2) to reveal a kind of warrior ethos appropriate to the warrior culture of the Middle Ages.  For those readers and writers interested in the background to any decent epic fantasy work, these backgrounds will help you appreciate well-written examples of the genre (as well as be able to cry “foul!” for authors who don’t do their homework and try to impose 21st Century sensibilities into a medieval mindset).

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Song of Roland (13th c. ms, St. Gall, Switzerland)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Song of Roland (13th c. ms, St. Gall, Switzerland)

Back around the years 1000-1200 A.D., in a generally pre-literate and definitely pre-Facebook Age, Tolkien knew that the main means of describing acts of war and violence were via these “songs of deeds,” extended epic poems that were performed by minstrels in the growing noble houses and courts of western Europe (remember Thorin’s cries of “To me! To me” when you read the excerpt and dialogues below.) And, yes, before I receive some emails about there being other means of medieval communication, I know that there were monks in cells or scriptoria throughout Europe, dutifully using quills to etch ink onto parchment and disseminate ideas via an elite, educated culture (however, there weren’t really any means of mass-media production of information until Johannes Gutenburg’s printing press c. 1450)!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Raoul of Cambrai," by John Vernon Lord)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Raoul of Cambrai,” by John Vernon Lord)

In this chanson, a French lord, Raoul of Cambrai, goes crazy after the emperor’s disenfranchised him from the lands he inherited….

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Raoul de Cambrai"

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Raoul de Cambrai”

[Begin excerpt from “Raoul of Cambrai”:

The Fourth Geste: Death
Chant 1: Raoul’s Recklessness
Raoul spurred forth his worthy horse again;
Upon his shield he struck young Bertolai,
A cousin of Bernier, well-born and -bred,
Who held a fort down in the vale of Metz;
He’d struck to ground a mound of Cambrai men
And, striking him, Raoul filled with content;
He smote his shield, which like a mantle rent,
And ripped aside his hauberk at the neck;
From front to back he thrust his pennon, then
Upon the valley’s slope he flung him dead:
‘Cambrai!’ he cried, ‘Young vassals, forge ahead!
By God Who saved brave Daniel from the den,
I’ll not be caught in any trap they’ve set!’

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Raoul de Cambrai"

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Raoul de Cambrai”

The ground was soft beneath the falling rain;
The mud and slime was thick with blood that day,
And only I know who survived the fray,
Who won, who lost, the slayers and the slain;
Their weary steeds were worn out with the strain —
Their fleetest ones went now at a walking pace;
The losses of Count Herbert’s sons were great.

The rain came down and turned the ground to mud,
And all the steeds, both grey and bay, were stuck;
Ernaut, the count of all Douai, rode up
And saw Raoul of Cambrai in the crush;
I know full well Ernaut and reproved him thus:
‘By God, you’re one I’ll never love or trust,
Until you yield your sword or life to us!
You’ve slain my nephew Bertolai for one;
And Richerin, whom I most dearly loved,
I’ll see no more, and countless other ones.’

Raoul replied: ‘Their deaths are not enough!
I’ll slay you too, if but the chance should come.’
Ernaut replied: ‘My blade shall drink your blood!
I challenge you, by good Saint Nicholas;
The right is ours, so help me God above.’

Medieval Knights

Medieval Knights

‘Are you in truth the Cambrai Count, you blackguard?
I’ve not seen you since you began my sadness:
I have two sons, by holy, happy marriage,
And sent them both to Louis’s royal palace;
From Vermandois I saw them leave Paris;
You killed them both in foul and faithless fashion;
You struck no blow but stood and watched them stagger;
I hate you now because you let that happen —
But my good sword will see revenge exacted!
Your head will fall, or so will all my valor!’
Raoul replied: ‘You pledge yourself too rashly!
If I can’t make you eat your words, you braggart,
In Cambrai shire I’ll cast no more my shadow!’

With taunt and vaunt both nobles showed no measure;
They spurred their steeds and swiftly came together,
The bolder heart afraid of mortal peril;
Great blows they swapped on shields from Piacenza,
And though their coats proved able to deflect them,
Both knights at once were thrown upon the meadow;
They leapt aloft, so very great their strength was,
And struck again with blows of sharpest metal —
The bolder heart still beating hard with terror.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Raoul of Cambrai")

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Raoul of Cambrai”)

Both Counts had lost their stirrups and their steeds,
Raoul, who was a wondrous knight indeed,
Both strong and bold with any arm to wield,
Was first to draw his sword-blade from its sheath,
And struck Ernaut’s gold helm a blow so fierce
That all its stones and floral-gold flew free;
Without the coif upon his coat beneath,
It would have split his skull from top to teeth;
The blow slid off towards the left and sheared
One quarter of Ernaut’s well-crafted shield;
His hauberk lost two hundred links at least,
And he was stunned and fell upon the field;
His spirits sank to feel his strength grow weak,
And, crying out to God upon his knees,
He said: ‘Sweet Lord, support me in my need!’
I shall rebuild Your church at Origny!
Raoul, in truth, your ardor has no peer;
But with God’s help I’ll make you suffer dear
For killing those whose deaths so saddened me!’

"Making a Knight" (BL MS Nero D.i.f.3; mid 13th-century)

“Making a Knight” (BL MS Nero D.i.f.3; mid 13th-century)

How fine a knight Ernaut of Douai was:
Both strong and bold with any arm to clutch!
His heart aglow with courage, he stood up
And, like a lord, a mighty blow he struck
Upon Raoul’s embellished helmet’s front;
The fleurs-de-lys upon its crest were cut;
Had not the coif beneath it borne the brunt,
From top to teeth he would have split his skull;
Raoul was stunned and felt his strength grow numb;
Then, crying out, he said: ‘By God above,
Whoever wins, you’ve struck me well enough!
You want revenge, you say, for those you loved;
I say this not to justify what’s done,
But, by the Lord, Who died for all of us —
For good or ill, I never knew your sons.’
Raoul was struck so hard by Ernaut’s lunge
That all his cheek and mouth ran red with blood;
In Paris, where he’d gone when he was young,
He’d taught the skills of sword-play’s cut and thrust:
Against Ernaut he used them all at once.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (Cantar de Mio Cid, c. 1260)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (Cantar de Mio Cid, c. 1260)

How brave a knight was he, how great his strength!
He raised his arm and swung his sword’s sharp edge
To strike Ernaut upon his pointed helm;
The precious stones and floral-emblems fell;
The blade of steel slid over to the left,
But with great skill he forced it to deflect
And slice Ernaut’s left wrist in its descent;
The hand fell down and took the shield it held,
The strap of it still in its clasp well clenched.
Ernaut could see his chance was at an end:
Upon the ground his shield had come to rest,
And from his arm the blood ran out unchecked;
In great despair he mounted horse and fled
Beside the wood which stood there green and dense;
To blame Ernaut would make or show no sense;
In hot pursuit Raoul harassed him yet…

[End Excerpt from Michael Newth, trans.,
“Raoul of Cambrai,”
in Richard Barber, ed., Epics of the Middle Ages;
London, Folio Society,
2005; pp. 260-263]

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste ("Medieval Warfare: Saul's Destruction of Nahash & Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:11) in French setting; c. 1250)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: The Chansons de Geste (“Medieval Warfare: Saul’s Destruction of Nahash & Ammonites (1 Samuel 11:11) in French setting; c. 1250)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste ("Alfonso X, the Wise," 13th c. ms, Codex Rico, Cantiga 63, Fol. 92R)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Chansons de Geste (“Alfonso X, the Wise,” 13th c. ms, Codex Rico, Cantiga 63, Fol. 92R)

Depictions of warriors such as Raoul of Cambrai, Roland, William of Orange, et al were western society’s first foray into the celebration of what we now call the “action hero.”  When creating a faux-medieval world that touches upon the kinds of military conflicts that have informed human existence since the beginning, I hope that the examination of these chansons shows that an epic fantasist can depict violence and action in a realistic way, while still tending to the needs of the story.  How?  Again, by going to the same kinds of source material with which Tolkien and Lewis were familiar; by learning from the way the minstrels sang about violence and a warrior’s deeds and life; by understanding that whether battle occurred in the 8th & 9th century fields of Charlemagne’s France, or the 21st century deserts of Iraq and Syria, fighting and dying remain a grim reality with which all of us have to constantly contend.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: Chansons de Geste ("The Song of Roland,"

Inspiration of Medieval Language & LIterature: Chansons de Geste (“The Song of Roland,”

When thinking about the medieval experience and trying to evoke aspects of that life via epic fantasy, the chansons are among the resources that we can use when trying to convey a truly “medieval” art form.  While these songs were ways for courtly audiences to vicariously experience a warrior’s life from the safety of a castle’s dining hall, writers should also follow Tolkien’s lead in recalling that — as with Bilbo’s expectations concerning the “glory of war” — there was ever-present a tragic element in the chansons that made audience members relieved that the violence remained in the realm of story-telling.

I’ll end on that cautionary aspect of audience and complicity with violence because, along with the minstrels and courts of medieval times, there is ever a danger in depicting violence and war in such a way that, to echo Marshal McLuhan, “the medium becomes the message.”

For example, getting back to the horror that Tolkien evoked in the Siege of Gondor, and also relating that medievalist writings to our (re)current involvement in Syria with the ISIS terrorists, when discussing the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff a couple of weeks ago, columnist David Brooks observed:

David Brooks, NY Times Op-Ed Columnist

David Brooks, NY Times Op-Ed Columnist

[Begin Brooks excerpt, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05]

“…the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize, and ISIS means to show violence unbounded; ISIS will get in our heads in the darkest way… a beheading reminds us of something disturbing in ourselves. We want to watch and we don’t want to watch.  Because of some warp in human nature, millions of people will go online to watch a beheading video though they might not even read about a simple shooting.  

But the revulsion aroused by a beheading is a moral revulsion…It is not just an injury or crime. It is an indignity.  A beheading is more like rape, castration, or cannibalism. It is a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.

But what is this sacred thing that is being violated?

Well the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.  

We’re repulsed by a beheading because the body has a spiritual essence. The human head and body don’t just live and pass along genes. They paint, make ethical judgments, savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent. The body is material but surpasses the material. It’s spiritualized matter… [End David Brooks excerpt.]

Inspiration of Ancient Literature: The Iliad, "Achilles defeated Hector" (Peter Paul Reubens 1577-1640, oil on canvas)

Inspiration of Ancient Literature: The Iliad, “Achilles defeated Hector” (Peter Paul Reubens 1577-1640, oil on canvas)

As epic-fantasy novelists, a burden is not to “report the facts” or even comment upon them; plenty of avenues for those tasks in our 24/7 news cycles.  However, when aspiring to write literary epic fantasy, I think that there is an obligation to confront, work through, and evoke some of the humanistic questions and issues that Brooks addresses in his article, especially in the depictions of violence and warfare that seem part-and-parcel of the epic-fantasy/sword-and-sorcery/#callitwhatyouwillitsFANTASY genre.  Even a millennium in the past, the minstrels’ veneration of warfare and descriptions of warriors’ lives was nothing new; my daughter’s currently reading The Iliad and The Odyssey for her freshman Greek Literature in Translation class, and in those epic poems, Homer’s heroes of the Trojan War (c. 2,800 B.C.) do little else save discuss battles, confront monsters, and praise the attributes of fighting warriors!

"Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare" Video Game

“Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” Video Game

For those outside of a theater of war, to get a sense of the battlefield our 21st century “sensibilities” about violence rely either on the accuracy of news reports, or on the entertainment industry.  Depending on the bravery of a reporter or cameraperson, or on the vivacity of a film-maker’s imagination (and CGI budget), or immersion in a video game world, we can often view (and pretend to participate in) such violence from more than a bird’s eye perspective.  Of course, we’re also safely removed from the action, thanks to the television, computer monitor, or gaming screens that convey violent images and the aftermath of war with an immediacy that ignores the thousands of miles distance from the conflict.

That combination of immediacy & remoteness also lay at the heart of the minstrel’s chanson a thousand years ago, with noble audiences vicariously partaking of war-torn and violent realities via poetic songs.

Tolkien's Generation: July 1, 1916: The first day of the Battle of the Somme

Tolkien’s Generation: July 1, 1916: The first day of the Battle of the Somme

For us, as we cast about in a still very strife-filled world & try to make sense of (or escape) it via epic fantasy tales, we’d do well to tell the tales that our creative impulses need to express, but not to the extent that war and violence are glorified.  Remember the tragedies that informed Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth; two of his close friends were among the 400,000 British soldiers killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and even later Tolkien remarked that his account of the “Dead Marshes” in LotR “…owe something to northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” [Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle-Earth, p. 12.]

"Frodo, Sam, & Gollum in the Dead Marshes" (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin & Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson's "The Two Towers," New Line Cinema, 2002)

“Frodo, Sam, & Gollum in the Dead Marshes” (Elijah Wood, Sean Astin & Andy Serkis in Peter Jackson’s “The Two Towers,” New Line Cinema, 2002)

"Duckboard Path in Flanders" (from Nancy Marie Ott article, "JRR Tolkien & WW I")

“Duckboard Path in Flanders” (from Nancy Marie Ott article, “JRR Tolkien & WW I”)

Nancy Marie Ott contributed an article to the onering.net where she made a more explicit connection to this moment in The Two Towers:

[Begin excerpt, Ott:
The landscape of the Dead Marshes is also inspired by the Western Front. As Frodo, Sam, and their guide Gollum cross the Marshes, they see the ghostly, rotting forms of the dead soldiers of a war that had swept across the region thousands of years before. As Frodo tells Sam and Gollum,

“They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair, with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead.”

— “The Passage of the Marshes”, The Two Towers

The dead lying in pools of mud is a powerful image of trench warfare on the Western Front, and is something that Tolkien would have undoubtably seen during his wartime service. As the autumn rains fell, the battlefield of the Somme turned into a stinking mire seeded with the rotting corpses of men and animals. The dead men that Frodo and Sam see are not physically present – only their ghostly shapes have been preserved –but their forms inspire horror and pity.

The landscape of Ithilien is in some ways like the landscape of rural France in the area behind the front lines. Although there is evidence of the nearby conflic – a few damaged buildings, some shell craters, and the general debris of war – the landscape is otherwise natural and unspoiled. It has not fallen fully under the dominion of war. So too is Ithilien, the deserted province of Gondor that had recently fallen under the dominion of Sauron…[End excerpt, Nancy Marie Ott: “JRR Tolkien and World War I” @ http://greenbooks.theonering.net/]

"Ithilien" (J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers," Ted Nasmith)

“Ithilien” (J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Two Towers,” Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Hobbit" ("The Clouds Burst," by Michael Hague, 1984)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit” (“The Clouds Burst,” by Michael Hague, 1984)

Later, when writing to his son, Christopher, who was serving with the RAF in South Africa during WWII, Tolkien offered this advice, which says much about how a modern “minstrel” of our age developed his own chansons:

Bell Tents from World War I

Bell Tents from World War I

[Begin excerpt, Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien]:  “I think if you could begin to write…you would find it a great relief. I sense amongst your pains (some merely physical) the desire to express your feeling about good, evil, fair, foul in some way; to rationalize it, and prevent it just festering. In my case it generated Morgoth and the History of the Gnomes. Lots of the early parts of which….were done in grimy canteens, at lectures in cold fogs, in huts full of blasphemy and smut, or by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire.” [End excerpt, Christopher Snyder, The Making of Middle Earth, p. 13.]

As the drumbeats to war sound in many quarters these days, I’m not sure how much epic fantasy can contribute to the international debates raging among citizenry and policy-makers.

What fantasists can do, however, is strive to evoke something of human relevance in a story, and when violence appears, not to glorify it, but make it instead serve a narrative that ultimately celebrates life.

Next time:  Worlds of Medieval Literature (3): The Romances of the Middle Ages

For the full text of David Brooks’s column, “The Body and the Spirit,” please see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05

Medieval Epic Fantasy & the Modern Middle East

Medieval Epic Fantasy & the Modern Middle East

Stephen Colbert, "Caped Cash Cows" (Comedy Central, 7.17.14, time stamp 1:18)

Stephen Colbert, “Caped Cash Cows” (Comedy Central, 7.17.14, time stamp 1:18)

Good Morning, Everyone,

Oh, in these troubled times, what’s an epic fantasist to do when he knows that his stories involve the very Middle Eastern regions where bloodshed and terror are making any fiction pale in comparison?  If you’re like Stephen Colbert, you acknowledge the gravity of what’s happening in the world, but you also make time for literary epic fantasy:

Accidental mention or astute political commentary on Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Middle East? a.k.a., Why the Colbert Report Keeps winning Emmy Awards for Writing! (Archaeological Remains of Ancient Jericho,Tell es- Sultan, West Bank)

Accidental mention or astute political commentary on Israeli/Palestinian conflict in Middle East? a.k.a., Why the Colbert Report Keeps winning Emmy Awards for Writing! (Archaeological Remains of Ancient Jericho,Tell es- Sultan, West Bank)

[Excerpt from The Colbert Report (Comedy Central), Episode 9/17/14:
“…folks, there’s so much horrible news out there right now.  The Ebola epidemic is spreading, ISIS continues their reign of terror, and evidently — and I did not see this coming — the NFL employs some violent people. I did not know that.  Who could predict that? But, no matter how rough the news gets, you know what they say: when the going gets tough, the tough escape into a world of fantasy; and I am personally a huge fan of the genre — from The Lord of the Rings, to The Chronicles of Narnia, to the notebooks of Galileo … I mean, the Earth goes around the sun? Please. I’ve got two eyes, I can see … how did Joshua stop the sun at Jericho? Come on!” [End excerpt; for full segment, see http://thecolbertreport.cc.com]

Stephen Colbert, "Caped Cash Cows" (Comedy Central, 7.17.14, time stamp 1:24)

Stephen Colbert, “Caped Cash Cows” (Comedy Central, 7.17.14, time stamp 1:24)

Thankfully, a spate of fantasy books over the last ten years — including my own The Codex Lacrimae — give readers options to the generally “terrorist”- or “fundamentalist”-driven narratives.  (I’ll post some recommended reading at the end of this blog, but to glance at my thoughts for 21st Century Islamic-, Hebrew-, & Persian-inspired fantasy literature, please click on these links to see my blogs for March 8th http://ajcarlisle/2014/03/08/ & March 9th http://ajcarlisle/2014/03/09/).

Medieval Mediterranean Epic Fantasy Inspirations: Hebrew Lands of Maimonides (Fes, near Marrakech, Morocco)

Medieval Mediterranean Epic Fantasy Inspirations: Hebrew Lands of Maimonides (Fes, near Marrakech, Morocco)

Returned from the jumps? Good.  Back to our troubled times in the Middle East vis-à-vis literary expressions that include those peoples and lands.  Sometimes personal interests coincide with current events, and on this WordPress writers’ blog site I’d feel remiss if I didn’t try to address the issue, volatile though any discussion of it seems to be (as I write from my home in the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives just passed legislation to arm Syrian rebels” as a way of taking on ISIS in its own backyard. See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/18/).

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 2: The Book of Tears

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 2: The Book of Tears

To those readers new to this blog, some context about my background.  I’m a medieval historian who specializes in the history of philosophy & religion (with emphases on the Crusades of the 11th-13th Centuries), but who also writes epic fantasy novels.  My own fictional foray into those ancient lands, The Codex Lacrimae, is part of a 9-book Artifacts of Destiny magnum opus whose Arthurian/Norse narrative begins over eight-hundred years ago in this region (& will eventually end in the 23rd Century), but in addition to the castle of the Krak des Chevaliers (in Syria), the novel’s geographical encompasses the Byzantine Empire, Italic & Sicilian lands, and Germanic, French, British, & Scandinavian worlds.  Do these latter countries sound familiar?  With the addition of the United States, Jon Stewart nailed it last week when he (to paraphrase) pointed out the similarities of how the current situation smacks of a medieval constellation of Western/Christian regions vs. Middle Eastern/Islamic areas.

Mediterranean Lands: Muslim Conquest, Sicily

12th Century Mediterranean Lands as Epic Fantasy Crossroads between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism: Sicily

Inspiration for Medieval Epic Fantasy: Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

Inspiration for Medieval Epic Fantasy: Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

As nations again begin saber-rattling and a palpable apprehension radiates throughout the news outlets and blogosphere, it’s needful to return briefly from my daily work in the Middle Ages and take stock of the situation.  Why? In the first place, I think it’s always helpful for civilized peoples to not paint peoples, cultures, & religions with a broad brush (or, in the modern parlance, to allow a few inflammatory YouTube videos to frame opinions about all of Islam, rather than recognizing those beheadings for what they are: a particular kind of terrorism that caters to a 24/7 worldwide internet culture).  Secondly, I’ve spent over half of my adult professional life engaged in thinking about the Middle East — albeit mostly as that region existed from a pre-Islamic Late Antiquity (c. 337 AD) through the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453 — and my epic fantasy series of books rely heavily on medieval Middle Eastern locales, peoples, and situations for telling a story that features both Islamic heroes and villains.

De Agostini, "Saladin and Guy of Lusignan after Battle of Hattin in 1187," Wikipedia)

De Agostini, “Saladin and Guy of Lusignan after Battle of Hattin in 1187,” Wikipedia)

"U.S. & Kuwaiti troops close the gate between Kuwait and Iraq on 12/18/2011)"; Wikipedia

“U.S. & Kuwaiti troops close the gate between Kuwait and Iraq on 12/18/2011)”; Wikipedia

Well, recent research polls & news reports reveal that you don’t have to be a medievalist with interests in the Crusades to see that the Middle East remains a hotspot some 800+ years after the armies of Richard the Lion-Heart & Saladin fought each other for control of the Levant. For Americans of the 21st Century, in addition to guardedly watching the ominous resurgence of a Cold War realpolitik at work in Putin’s Russia, the near-daily escalations of violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Jerusalem & Palestine are very much on the public’s radar & minds of government policy-makers. The decades, centuries, and millennia of warfare in the Middle East also lends credence to early September’s Pew Survey’s finding that 51% of Americans are still cautious about re-entering any battle-zone in Iraq-Syria after involving ourselves in over a decade of war in the area. (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/04)

Empire of Alexander the Great (c. 323 B.C>)

Empire of Alexander the Great (c. 323 B.C>)

Alexander battling the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus (c. 333 B.C.)

Alexander battling the Persian King Darius III at the Battle of Issus (c. 333 B.C.)

As a historian, part of me tends to see something of an inevitability in these clashes of peoples, ideas, & faiths in areas that span what we now call the Middle East, and Central & South Asia; indeed, if you view the ancient Greeks as progenitors of the “West,” desultory Western attention has remained fixed on those areas for over 2,300 years, ever since Alexander the Great and his successor generals attempted their eastward expansions of the Macedonian Empire.

Whatever the conflict or stakes in these antique lands — that is, from the eastern Mediterranean Levantine Coast, to Babylonia (Iraq) & Persia (Iran), and eastward to the central and southern foothills of the Hindu Kush & Himalaya mountain ranges (Afghanistan & northern India) — each new generation of inhabitants, conquerors, occupiers, & nomadic armies has brought varying degrees of violence & ferocity to the regions, with differing degrees (and periods) of success or territorial stability.

Abbasid Caliphate (c. 786-809, reign of Harun al-Rashid); Princeton University)

Abbasid Caliphate (c. 786-809, reign of Harun al-Rashid); Princeton University)

President Obama addressing troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa (9/17/14)

President Obama addressing troops at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa (9/17/14)

However, knowing these historical realities doesn’t insulate me from reacting emotionally to recent headlines.  I can’t shrug my shoulders unconcernedly at the recent spate of civil wars & regional unrest, nor restrain my outrage at the beheadings of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haines.  In brooding about the situation, however, I do note that when discussing the savagery of these murders, observers from President Obama to pundits of every ideological bent have been united in how they assess the situation — to a man and woman, there seems to be almost universal references to the Christian Crusaders and jihadist Muslims of nine hundred years ago, when religion and warfare embroiled the forces of Christendom and the Islamic world for control of this region.  Indeed, the President and pundits use the word “medieval” to describe both how world powers and citizens consider the barbarity and threat of the terrorists calling themselves “the Islamic State” (ISIS/ISIL/IS), with special attention to the 7th-13th Centuries A.D., when Islamic caliphates controlled much of the southern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern worlds.  (See NY Times’ David Carr, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/08, NPR’s Ron Elving, http://www.npr.org/2014/09/10, & Daily Beast’s Eli Lake http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/10).  In assessing this medieval/modern association, however, I find myself more in the camp of The Guardian’s Kevin McDonald, who urges people to look more to “modern” western philosophy (e.g., the French Revolution) than to medieval precedents for the kind of terror and violence ISIS is willing to use. (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/09).

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, "The Big Bang Strategy" (time stamp @ 5:16, 9.11.14)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “The Big Bang Strategy” (time stamp @ 5:16, 9.11.14)

Jumping forward to our time, the constellation of powers being arrayed against ISIS does, however, bear remarkable resemblance to countries that sent Crusaders to the Levant in 1096, as well as to the 19th Century imperial powers & 20th Century Allies (including the U.S., Britain, & France), the latter of whom redrew the map of the Middle East into its current configuration after the end of World War II in 1945.  While the recent addition of commitments from Islamic states will certainly skew that kind of narrative, for a Crusades historian, specifically, the conflict between “Western” and “Middle Eastern” powers has a defined resonance that spans a millennium; so I totally understand a popular inclination to see conflict as “inevitable”, except for the fact that the world is 180° different than it was 1,000 years ago! 

Medieval Crusades (1095-1291)

Medieval Crusades (1095-1291)

Yes, in one way or another there are still three of the great world religions involved here that were also present in the Crusades — with a variety of sectarian beliefs & political ideologies informing the 2014 expressions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism at play in the Middle East.  However, in our Facebook & Social Media Age, particularly, young people in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Syria, etc. are making it clear that any “battlefronts” will be drawn on different lines than their predecessors (check out articles by Thomas Friedman at NY Times.com).  Ready access to oil remains the game-changer for everyone, but I take some hope in the fact that these current battles are not defined solely on a “West vs. Middle East” basis à la the Crusades.

Protestors at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt (2011, aljazeera)

Protestors at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt (2011, aljazeera)

Fantasy & Reality: Whether in Nineveh or Babylon, any archaeological remains of the Hanging Gardens remains threatened by war in Iraq (www.telegraph.co.uk)

Fantasy & Reality: Whether in Nineveh or Babylon, any archaeological remains of the Hanging Gardens remains threatened by war in Iraq (www.telegraph.co.uk)

For anyone who’s studied the Middle East, there’s been a realization over the last decade that there’s a fight for what Thomas Friedman would call “the soul of Islam,” a battle that incorporates complex sources. Just pick a country in the region and you’ll be stymied in trying to find an easy solution to its endemic problems, most of which lie in Sunni, Shi’ite, or other sectarian approaches to governing; and those solutions would have to confront realities that are mostly defined by who has (1) the most oil-based wealth, (2) outside superpower support, and, of course, (3) the strongest military force at hand.

Iraq? ISIS’s steady march southeastward through ancient Babylonian lands in its attempt to create a Sunni caliphate continues while yet another interim government in Baghdad is fashioned by three vice-presidents, each of whom with different Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish affiliations.

Medieval Fantasy & Modern Reality: Site of Carlisle's 12th C. Epic Fantasy, "The Codex Lacrimae":  The Crusader Castle of Krak des Chevaliers (Bombed by Syrian forces, 7/12/13)

Medieval Fantasy & Modern Reality: Site of Carlisle’s 12th C. Epic Fantasy, “The Codex Lacrimae”: The Crusader Castle of Krak des Chevaliers (Bombed by Syrian forces, 7/12/13)

Syria? President Bashar al-Assad’s still in power after almost two years of civil war, supported by Iran, Russia, and China, & a desultory approach by Western powers who can’t find a viable force of “moderate” Syrian rebels to overthrow him. (I’m not sure which “rebel group(s)” to whom the U.S. will be supplying arms here, but unless our country’s going to run a “proxy war,” it’s hard not to imagine U.S. boots on the ground by the end of the year…).

One of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World: The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

One of the 7 Ancient Wonders of the World: The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Egypt? Hopes of a modern democratic state that flared briefly after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 have been dimmed by an unpredictable course that’s veered from the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the dictatorial impulses of Mohamed Morsi to a coup d’etat by the Egyptian Armed Forces.

Fulcrum of Middle East: Western Wall on Temple Mount, Jerusalem (National Geog., Pic by Richard Nowitz)

Fulcrum of Middle East: Western Wall on Temple Mount, Jerusalem (National Geog., Pic by Richard Nowitz)

Israel and Palestine? The state of Israel and the Palestinian people are collectively a fulcrum in the region, whose differences provide leverage and justification for almost every expression of war, peace, or terrorism, with issues ranging from contested territories and settlements to nigh-constant saber-rattling from both Israelis and neighboring Arab States, all of which make any kind of reasonable debate seem impossible.  Iran? Besides supporting other pro-Shi’ite regimes throughout the region (e.g., Assad’s Syria), the decades-long antagonism of this country toward the U.S. and Israel, and continued attempts to develop a nuclear program have both been major factors in defining relations with the West.

"The next war against global jihadism," The Economist 9/13/14 (Sources: Noria Research; Institute for the Study of War)

“The next war against global jihadism,” The Economist 9/13/14 (Sources: Noria Research; Institute for the Study of War)

For all of these countries, sectarian interpretations of Islam have informed the debates & conflicts across the region, but until the advent of ISIS’s unique approach to terror in this YouTube Age, I think that many of the recent arguments about jihadist violence have been in the abstract, with pundits pointing fingers at “Islam” as a religion which encourages terrorism, and that the “brand” of Islamic terrorism in the last month is fundamentally different from what’s been seen before on the world stage (a strangely dismissive opinion that ignores the fact that al-Qaeda is still out there, and still remains the group responsible for the largest act of U.S. homeland terrorism with the killings of 9/11/01).  An article in The Economist on 9/13 put this new reality succinctly:

Al-Qaeda in early 2000s; Afghanistan, Hindu Kush Mountains (T-62 Tank in foreground, Wikipedia Commons)

Al-Qaeda in early 2000s; Afghanistan, Hindu Kush Mountains (T-62 Tank in foreground, Wikipedia Commons)

[Begin excerpt from The Economist, 9/13/14]… Today’s foes are an especially vile cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits calling themselves Islamic State (IS). An offshoot of al-Qaeda, IS has exceeded its progenitor in terms of both political ambition and brutality. Across swathes of Syria and Iraq it has founded a “caliphate”, the long-defunct Islamic institution that the late leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, only dreamed about in messianic discourses.

IS’s love of gore, with gleeful massacres and beheadings recorded for video distribution across the internet, the brutal persecution of religious minorities and, it is said, the enslavement of women and children, has estranged it even from al-Qaeda. IS is a “killing and destruction machine”, says Abu Qatada, a jihadist ideologue (once described as Bin Laden’s top man in Europe) who was extradited from Britain to Jordan, where he is on trial on terrorism-related charges; its fighters are the “dogs of hellfire”. The beheading of two American journalists gave the West a glimpse of the many horrors.

Images from Iraq War (Clockwise from top: Delta Force of Task Force 20 alongside troops of 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, at Uday Hussein and Qusay Hussein's hideout.; Insurgents in northern Iraq; an Iraqi insurgent firing a MANPADS; the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square; SOURCE: Wikipedia Commons, "Iraq War")

Images from Iraq War (Clockwise from top: Delta Force of Task Force 20 alongside troops of 3rd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, at Uday Hussein and Qusay Hussein’s hideout.; Insurgents in northern Iraq; an Iraqi insurgent firing a MANPADS; the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdos Square; SOURCE: Wikipedia Commons, “Iraq War”)

IS has achieved something scarcely conceivable in the Middle East by uniting the bitterest of foes in a common purpose. Such diverse actors as Europeans and Kurds, the embattled Syrian regime along with many of the rebels opposing it, Turkey, a slew of Arab states, as well as Israel and the Iraqi government itself have all clamoured for American intervention. Even Iran, though unenthusiastic about the Americans’ return to a theatre that it has worked hard to squeeze them out of, has accepted a tacit, temporary alliance with the Great Satan.

On September 10th, Barack Obama promised to “lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat”. This would include systematic air strikes against IS in support of Iraqi forces and, if necessary, in Syria too.

Turning the fleeting political alignment into a coherent campaign is a tall order. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have shown how Western armed forces can score quick initial victories, but fail to secure a stable political system to maintain security thereafter. It may be even harder given that Mr Obama, even as he deploys hundreds more soldiers to support the mission, insists America “will not get dragged into another ground war”.

Modern Day Syrian Realities: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and U.S. President Barack Obama (RIA Novosti News Agency, Russia, 10/9/2013)

Modern Day Syrian Realities: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Syrian President Bashar Assad, and U.S. President Barack Obama (RIA Novosti News Agency, Russia, 10/9/2013)

From Baath to bloodbath

The strength of IS reflects the political implosion in much of the Middle East, from the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship by the Americans to the cracking of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian one in the succession of Arab uprisings known as the Arab Spring. IS is both the product and the chief instigator of the ever deepening Sunni-Shia enmity that runs from Bahrain to Lebanon.

Misrule and cynicism play a part, too. IS could not have established itself in Raqqa, in Syria’s north-east, had Mr Assad not held off from bombing it, though he had no qualms about killing civilians elsewhere in his attempt to crush less extreme opponents; Mr Assad’s aim was to present himself as the only alternative to the most terrifying of jihadists. And IS could not have taken control of swathes of Iraq this summer, including Mosul, the second-largest city, had it not been for the systematic marginalisation of Sunnis by the Shia-led government of Nuri al-Maliki. [End Excerpt: The Economist, “The next war against global jihadism,’ 9/13/14, @ http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa.  For historical synopses for both the rise of ISIS and general crises throughout the Middle East, please see The Economist, 6/21/14 article, http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/ and http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, "The Big Bang Strategy" (time stamp @ 8:47, 9.11.14)

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “The Big Bang Strategy” (time stamp @ 8:47, 9.11.14)

With regard to expressions of Islamic “fundamentalism” & “terrorism,” I think that Jon Stewart synopsized the situation well last week when he closed his 9/11/14 segment “The Big Bang Strategy,” with the following words:

“You know, we have an anniversary today, the attack of thirteen years ago today was planned by four dickheads in a three-bedroom apartment in Hamburg.  (Probably could’ve been a two-bedroom, but they wanted a home office.)  There is no way to militarily eliminate enough space to keep some terrorists from operating against us. So, until this part of the world decides that it irks them that the belief system they hold sacred is being misrepresented to justify a perpetual violence machine, until it starts to see past sectarian lines and national borders that… ok (heh) we drew, we’ll give you that…the United States can’t fix this, because it can’t be fixed by waving a magic bomb, not that we don’t have one of those in development.  We’ll be right back.” [End transcript of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “The Big Bang Strategy,” http://thedailyshow.cc.com/ time-stamp 8:05-8:53]

Inspiration of Medieval Epic Fantasy: One Thousand & One Arabian Nights, "Ali Baba" (Maxfield Parrish, 1908)

Inspiration of Medieval Epic Fantasy: One Thousand & One Arabian Nights, “Ali Baba” (Maxfield Parrish, 1908)

That’s the historian side’s assessment of things.  On the novelist part of the register, for the part of me that writes epic fantasy and aims to “globalize” the way that writers in my genre tell stories,  I tend to be more optimistic and idealistic.  Why?  Well, first, there’s an author’s prerogative that lets me do whatever the heck I want to do with a creation.  I can express optimism or cynicism (and sometimes both) depending on the trajectory of a tale — when world-building, I simply have a lot more control over people & events than is possible in affecting events on the world stage! For those who want to write epic fantasy and include these regions in stories, you need to know something of these realities so that whatever tale you tell isn’t so divorced from reality as to slip into caricatures or stereotypes.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Night," from "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" (art by Edmund Dulac)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Night,” from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (art by Edmund Dulac)

Secondly, in my books, unlike Tolkien and Lewis, I’m not creating a Middle Earth- or Narnia-like world that cleaves solely to northern European medieval lands; instead, in my take on the Norse Nine Worlds and the medieval experience, I’m striving for a Star-Trekky “United Federation of Planets” vibe.  In my approach to world-building in epic fantasy, the maxim “universalize & reboot the genre” means expanding the scope of epic fantasy storytelling to include all parts of the medieval world for which we have reliable records.  That means, eventually, The Artifacts of Destiny books will reflect my belief that humanity will always find a a way to rise above the baser impulses and — à la Plato/Aristotle/Socrates — practice lives that are spent mostly in trying to express “the Good.”  Therefore, in my books, expect to see recruitment of heroes and villains from every part of the medieval, modern, and future parts of the globe, be those characters from the traditional “high fantasy” locales of Europe, the British Isles, and Scandinavia, or —in what I think is a unique approach — to the 12th century Mediterranean Sea territories, Byzantine Empire, Middle East regions, and even China, India, Africa, and Russian hinterlands!

In making that effort, I’ve studied deeply in the histories and cultures of these peoples and know that, as with our modern news stories, for every act of evil or violence recorded or mentioned in the sources, there are thousands of instances of kindnesses and goodwill that simply go unremarked upon.

Moreover, I’m not alone: for life-enriching “fantasy & fictional” stories in these troubled parts of the world, check out the following books and authors…

G. Willow Wilson, "Alif the Unseen"

G. Willow Wilson, “Alif the Unseen”

Current authors & works that incorporate/analogize Islamic sources :

Saladin AhmedCrescent Moon Kingdoms series (Throne of the Crescent Moon, Bk 1)
Elizabeth BearThe Eternal Sky series (Range of Ghosts / Shattered Pillars /Steles of the Sky)
Howard Andrew JonesThe Desert of Souls
Guy Gavriel Kay, The Lions of Al-Rassan / The Sarantine Mosaic / The Last Night of the Sun
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

Sharon Shinn, "The Samaria Series": Book 1, "Archangel"

Sharon Shinn, “The Samaria Series”: Book 1, “Archangel”

Current authors & works that incorporate/analogize Hebrew sources:

Lisa Goldstein, The Red Magician
Sharon Shinn, Samaria Series (Archangel / Jovah’s Angel / The Alleluia Files / Angelica
Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Golem
Hagar YanaiThe Leviathan of Babylon Trilogy (The Leviathan of Babylon / The Water Betwixt the Worlds)

Guy Gavriel Kay, "Under Heaven"

Guy Gavriel Kay, “Under Heaven”

Current authors & works that incorporate/analogize medieval Silk Road & Spice Route Destinations (Persian, Hindu, Chinese, & Japanese mythos):

Lian Hearn, Across the Nightingale Floor
Alma A. Hromic
The Secrets of Jin-Shei
Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China that Never Was
Guy Gavriel KayUnder Heaven
Paul Kearney, The Macht Trilogy
Sean Russell, The Initiate Brother Series (The Initiate Brother, Gatherer of Clouds)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Morning," from "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" (art by Edmund Dulac)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Morning,” from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” (art by Edmund Dulac)

Besides being great reads, these stories could hopefully remind you that despite the civil wars, regardless of the terrorist bombings and beheadings, and in the face of the terrifying strife throughout the region, there are also thousands & millions of people who live in every one of those countries waking up each day and wishing desperately that they were able to live in peace and safety. That’s the moment where epic fantasy, or for that matter, any literature, ceases to be simply “escapist” and can become something more — it can remind us of the humanity that should bind all of us together, rather than factionalizing and tearing us apart.

That’s why I think I often prefer the idealism of the novelist to the cynicism of the historian.  I know that besides becoming as informed as I can about the various peoples and cultures in the region, or voting for candidates who might conduct foreign policy in a way I can support, I don’t feel as if I can do anything about the reality of the march to war in these “Middle Eastern” regions.  However, in writing and reading epic fantasy, I can follow the lead of generations of literature aficionados before me who know that this form of expression can sometimes reveal a world not necessarily as it is, but as we might someday make it to be.

Next Time: Globalizing the Epic Fantasy Genre via Tolkien, Carlisle, and, oh, Yeah, those pesky medieval Chansons de Geste!

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