Medieval Epic Fantasy & the Modern Middle East
Medieval Epic Fantasy & the Modern Middle East
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:
[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]
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/).
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/).
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.
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.
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)
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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…).
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.
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.
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:
[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.
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”.
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/)
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]
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.
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…
Current authors & works that incorporate/analogize Islamic sources :
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms series (Throne of the Crescent Moon, Bk 1)
Elizabeth Bear, The Eternal Sky series (Range of Ghosts / Shattered Pillars /Steles of the Sky)
Howard Andrew Jones, The 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
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 Yanai, The Leviathan of Babylon Trilogy (The Leviathan of Babylon / The Water Betwixt the Worlds)
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 Kay, Under Heaven
Paul Kearney, The Macht Trilogy
Sean Russell, The Initiate Brother Series (The Initiate Brother, Gatherer of Clouds)
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!