Tuesday, 9 October 2018

World War II and Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is, arguably, a form of storytelling highly influenced by the Second World War. World War II remains unusual in military history for being a conflict which can clearly be divided between the “bad guys” (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan) and the “good guys” (the plucky Brits, the brave French Resistance and the heroic-if-a-bit-tardy United States of America) with a minimum of moral uncertainty. Popular narratives of the Second World War show the heroic, democracy-loving Brits and Yanks storming the beaches of Normandy to save Europe from the diabolical and evil rule of the brutal Third Reich.

Christopher Lee as Saruman in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Lee fought in the British special forces in WWII, in operations that he refused to discuss even decades afterwards.

This is of course monstrously simplistic, and ignores the morally murkier elements of the conflict, such as the Allied mass bombing campaign that was designed to slaughter as many German civilians as possible, and of course the involvement of the Soviet Union in the war. The USSR committed many atrocities of its own (including being complicit in Germany’s invasion of Poland which started the war in the first place) and was willing to accept staggering military and civilian losses to finally defeat the Germans and capture Berlin (a fact glossed over in western accounts of the conflict, which tend to suggest that the US and UK were the primary architects of Hitler’s downfall rather than relative bystanders). Still, the sometimes almost cartoonishly evil nature of the Nazi regime (“Are we the bad guys? If not, why do our uniforms have skulls on them?”) allows it to be presented as an irredeemable foe who must be destroyed at all costs with a minimum of moral qualms, very useful for propaganda, morale and rousing novels, films and video games.

Epic fantasy written in the post-war era feels like it is influenced by this conflict. People writing fantasy in this period either fought in the war directly, were children during it or were born in the aftermath of the conflict and grew up with stories of it from their parents and grandparents.

The fantasy saga sometimes said to have been most influenced by the war is The Lord of the Rings, although J.R.R. Tolkien was scornful of this. He started writing the book in late 1937, two years before the conflict even began, and the story and themes of the book developed out of The Hobbit, mostly written in 1930-32 or thereabouts. The titular One Ring itself is sometimes compared to a nuclear bomb (in its ability to end the War of the Ring in a single stroke rather than actual destructive power) and much is made of the Scouring of the Shire and its similarity to the military occupation of a formerly peaceful territory. However, the Ring was created for The Hobbit and its powers established long before the outbreak of the conflict. Tolkien himself was furious with the idea of the book being an allegory (noting he detested allegory wherever it was found), but did acknowledge the idea of “applicability,” and the disturbing feeling that real events were conforming (somewhat) to those in the book rather than vice versa. Tolkien did acknowledge a much greater influence on the book by his own experiences in World War I, particularly the several months he spent on the Western Front during the Battle of the Somme. The Frodo-Sam relationship is reminiscent of that between a gentleman soldier and his batman, and the Dead Marshes with their hordes of corpses (and semi-undead) lying face-up in the flooded marshlands being an image that stuck with Tolkien from the aftermath of bloody engagements.

Skipping ahead a few generations, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles feels like a revamp of the Second World War. The forces of evil gain a series of military advantages from the return of the dark goddess Takhisis and the ability to control evil dragons in battle. This allows them to overrun half the continent of Ansalon and push the remaining nations and our heroes to the brink of defeat. However, our heroes gain the favour of the god Paladine, the allegiance of the good dragons and then the ability to use the fabled dragonlances in battle. This turns the tide and routs the enemy. This can be seen as a reflection of the military technology in WWII: the Germans’ early innovation and technical ingenuity gave them a keen early edge that allowed them to defeat everyone they faced in battle, but later in the conflict the Allies first matched and then exceeded their technological advantage, which the Germans could not sustain and ultimately lost.

Many epic fantasies feature narratives not dissimilar to this. The Wheel of Time shows a growing threat from a powerful opponent who is allowed to go unchecked because the nations that should be unifying against them can’t stop their squabbles with one another, even when the threat becomes blatant. This is an echo of the way Hitler expertly exploited inter-war rivalries between nations such as Russia and Poland to stop opponents joining forces against him (and, indeed, struck an unlikely alliance himself with Russia which prevented them from joining France and Britain in the war). The decision of the forces of “Light” in the books to join forces with the morally highly dubious Seanchan to fight the Dark One can be seen as a reflection of the reluctance with which nations like Britain (whose leader, Churchill, held a deep and abiding hatred of Communism) allied with Russia to fight the greater threat, and the repeated warning that this alliance could sow the seeds of a greater conflict later on (as it very nearly did, with the Cold War almost going nuclear-hot on several occasions, and various visions in The Wheel of Time showing a future where the Seanchan and the other nations resume their conflict).

George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is rather different, however. The conflict between the Great Houses is of course most strongly influenced by the Wars of the Roses, but there is also a strong influence from World War I: the Houses go to war against one another in a manner reflecting their inter-war alliances and fuelled by grievances (just and unjust) extending back generations, with Jon Arryn’s death and then Tyrion Lannister’s arrest setting in motion a series of falling dominoes leading to conflict as much as Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in August 1914.

The most notable fantasy novel series directly based on World War II is Harry Turtledove’s Darkness series, a six-volume series set on a continent resembling Eurasia which is riven by war. Technological developments are replaced by discoveries in the field of sorcery but every nation has its real-world analogue (albeit often inverted; the war in the desert in Africa is replaced by a war on a southern polar continent) and the conflict unfolds in a very similar manner. Turtledove of course likes to revisit WWII in his alternate history fiction, with his splendidly readable, pulp Worldwar series being set during a WWII interrupted by the arrival of an alien invasion fleet, and his darker Southern Victory series in which the Confederacy survives the Civil War as an independent state and becomes embroiled in further conflicts leading to the establishing of a North American theatre in WWII (which, due to a German victory in WWI and no rising of the Nazi Party, unfolds very differently).

A recent fantasy which directly echoes the war is the video game series Valkyria Chronicles. Set on the continent of Europa, the story charts the outbreak of war between the East Europan Imperial Alliance (a blending of Nazi Germany in ideology and Soviet Russia in size and manpower) and the Atlantic Federation (a mixture of western European nations such as Britain and France, and NATO of the Cold War period, albeit with an American analogue which is very reluctant to get involved in the fight). The war opens with the Empire invading the Federation and the small neutral nation of Gallia (based loosely on the Netherlands and Belgium), the latter both to seize its deposits of ragnite (a valuable ore which powers advanced technology) and to allow it to invade the Federation on a second front. Unlike the real war, where the Low Countries were overrun quickly, in the game the much smaller Gallian army is able to rally around the nation’s complex geography (particularly its rivers and canals) and prevent the numerically superior Imperial army from seizing the country. The Empire’s insistence on deploying increasingly insane and impractical tanks on the battlefield and its constant hunt for superweapons is an echo of Hitler’s insistence on deploying increasingly unreliable new technology during WWII rather than refining existing designs, not to mention his increasingly desperate search for “doomsday weapons” that could end the war quickly. Even the Mamota, an insane “land battleship” which the Empire uses at the end of the game, is based on a real idea, the Landkreuzer P.1000 Ratte, a 1,000-ton tank Hitler heartily endorsed but whose development was cancelled by Albert Speer on the reasonable grounds it was ridiculous.

Valkyria Chronicles (2008) is unusual in combining both direct WWII elements – guns, artillery, grenades, tanks, propaganda and pogroms against a scapegoated minority (the Darcsens replacing the Jews) – and traditional fantasy tropes. There is an ancient magical race, the Valkyrur, whose power lingers into the modern age and at key moments both protagonists and antagonists gain access to their power. There are magical items and hopeless struggles by a plucky band of up-against-the-odds heroes against monstrous enemies (although some of them are shown to have a code of individual honour at odds with the atrocities their forces commit). Surprisingly cynically, the Federation, which becomes prominent in Valkyria Chronicles 4 (2018), is shown to sometimes be brutal and cold as well, willing to sacrifice vast numbers of civilian lives and infringe the borders of sovereign nations in order to get an upper hand against the Empire and is secretly developing a weapon of mass destruction behind the scenes. The oddest element of the Valkyria universe, given how closely it parallels WWII, is the near-total absence of aircraft from the conflict, with the few aircraft mentioned or appearing being WWI-style biplanes.

Of course, the straightforward (if not exactly accurate) good vs. evil nature of WWII gave rise afterwards to much more morally murky conflicts where the notions of good, evil, justice and injustice became far more fluid: Suez, Vietnam, Bosnia, the Iraq War and clashes of religious fundamentalists. This can be seen in the type of fantasy fiction that has followed: the Black Company (by Vietnam vet Glen Cook) and Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen (inspired by a lot of war fiction, and indeed The Black Company) are much less clear-cut tales where good and evil are less of an issue. Joe Abercrombie explores some of the same issues of morally flexible real politik in his First Law world. Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series (including the Prince of Nothing and Aspect-Emperor sub-series) delves deep into religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series presents the world with a monstrously damaged human being who commits atrocities but who, ultimately, may end up saving the world. The moral relativism of post-WWII conflicts has been well matched and explored by fantasy fiction, perhaps too much for some as we’ve also seen a re-emergence of throwback fantasy, more concerned with more straightforward tales of good vs. evil (such as Michael Sullivan’s Ririya series and Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere works).

WWII will remain a rich source of inspiration for fantasy fiction, although it is refreshing (if perhaps a tad depressing) to see other, less clear-cut conflicts being mined for different kinds of stories.

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1 comment:

Terry93D said...

Let's not forget Daniel Abraham and The Dagger and the Coin which draws a little from World War II, yes, but even more importantly twenty-first century history: the absolute certainty of the spider priests reflecting the absolute certainty of Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush administration. Its observations on the nature of truth and certainty are also very cogent and very modern.