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Making Monsters of Men: Confronting Fantasy’s Relationship With Violence

In a Reddit thread from 2015 a poster posed a question: “Is fantasy too violent?” Acclaimed author Mark Lawrence replied “I don’t understand the question. Is the sky too blue?” As a genre, fantasy often goes hand in hand with violence. Unlike the characters who inhabit contemporary fictions, the monarchs, warriors, assassins, thieves and wizards who populate the pages of fantasy rarely are given leave to enjoy quiet lives. While interpersonal dramas may take place in fantasy books, the main conflicts are often bloody.


This, some say, is a mere reflection of our world. Fantasy generally reflects conflicts on a global scale rather than a personal one, and global conflicts are often resolved through war (of course they are often enough also resolved through diplomacy). Certainly modern fantasy, widely regarded as having come of age with the publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 but written largely during the turbulent years of WWII, generally reflects a certain kind of noble conflict. Perhaps, at that point in time, when specter of fascism loomed heavy in the collective conscious, it was important for war to have meaning. What could be more meaningful than the ultimate battle pitting good against evil?


But if fantasy was born out of this need, it was also born in a time when all too many, both civilians and soldiers alike, knew the true consequences of war. Drafts were common. Most people were only one or two degrees away from a personal war loss, and many much loser than that. Too many peoples’ lives were, for a time, lived and spent in violent ways. Perhaps at that time reminding people that war and violent conflict could inflict moral injury would be like reminding a chef that a sharp knife could draw blood.


Moral injury is a familiar term to people with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) as well as specialists in its treatment. The US Department of Veteran Affairs calls moral injury the “distressing psychological, behavioral, social, and sometimes spiritual aftermath” that occurs when individuals “perpetrate, fail to prevent, or witness events that contradict deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” Wars in particular, by their very nature, often lead to moral injury. People who are placed in positions in which they have direct power of life and death over others, and who have to exercise that power in ways which violate the moral code that we each carry within us, are those most vulnerable to moral injury.


Fantasy rarely handles this aspect of the genre on any sort of deep and ongoing level. Recently, there has been some attempt on the part of some books to show the consequences of war, to show characters with post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), but often the reasons for why characters suffer from war is surface level. That war is wrong, we understand. One of the most basic taboos of all human societies is the proscription against killing other human beings. In general, the less justification we find for a killing, the more distressing it is to us on a mental and emotional level. That is, killing in self-defense can be traumatizing, but killing civilians who have not done us any harm often causes much greater moral injury.

There is a reason that fantasy often features very justifiable wars, more World War 2 than the Vietnam War. The enemy is often nameless and evil. Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy has foreign enemy, the “Red Ships” that use some kind of magic to transform villagers into mindless violent husks, and George R.R. Martin’s great threat in A Song of Ice and Fire is an army of the undead who would like nothing more than to destroy every living thing. These are enemies that can be killed with little thought to the moral consequences because these killings are essentially acts of self defense. Killing them is done to preserve a way of life, sometimes to preserve life itself. Much like the parents of Baby Boomers in the 1950s who pursued almost aggressively normal lives, the heroes who defeat the army of undead or the Red Ships, the wicked king or the evil sorcerer, will be rewarded with a return to domestic life, all things set right once again.


In the past few decades, in Anglophone literature these end-of-the-world good versus evil struggles have fallen somewhat out of fashion, mirroring real life, in which wars are less a battle to save the world and more a battle for the control of resources, or, from the other side, a nation’s right to autonomy. The rights and wrongs of these wars may seem murky, particularly to a soldier fighting on the side of the aggressor. David Wood’s book What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars examines specifically wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young recruits, told they were going overseas to liberate oppressed people, to hand out rations or build schools, quickly realized that they were expected to kill. Not only that, but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a shocking number of deaths (one Brown university report estimates that close to half a million people have been killed in the combined post-911 wars in the Middle East). Soldiers often felt betrayed by their commanders and country, and felt that they themselves betrayed their own sense of morality. As John Tirman, the author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, states, the high civilian cost of war “challenges their strongly held self-perception that their country is a force for good in the world.”


Fantasy rarely allows warriors to question why they are fighting. Honor and duty are and love of king and country are often cited as reasons for fighting but research into modern wars tells us that this often is simply not enough. George R.R. Martin uses the petty conflicts between human kingdoms and the prices paid by civilians as a way of highlighting the significant of the true threat. War is almost universally considered a necessary evil, even when the conflict is a territorial one rather than an existential one.


Fantasy also often holds the leadership— the monarchs, Lords, Princes— aloof from war. Often they are uncaring, seeing their soldiers as no more than pawns, and sometimes they imagine themselves as uniquely capable of seeing the consequences of war. Sometimes this is done to underline a point about class, or to make the ruling class seem more heartless. We know now though that being distant from the actual fighting of a war does not make one immune to trauma. Drone pilot operators have been reported to have higher rates of suicide than troops on the ground, despite the fact that they are physically quite different from the business of killing.


A common fantasy assumption is that beyond the wars themselves there is a noble way to kill and a dishonorable way to kill. Even assassins can be noble if they only kill enemies of their king, most of whom are naturally very wicked (in reality, assassins must be entirely morally bankrupt or else suffer grievous moral injuries). Likewise there is a noble way to fight in a war and a dishonorable way to fight in a war. Noble leaders charge into battle with their men. Noble men don’t cower in fear. Noble men give their enemies clean deaths. Noble soldiers never run away. It is hard to imagine many fantasy protagonists transported into Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam war battlefields in The Things They Carried, to fight along boys who cried for their mothers and prayed to god and only hoped not to die.


One of the great moments in Megan Whelan Turner’s Return of the Thief (which I will expand upon a length next week) involves a conversation between the King and Queen of the country of Attolia, Eugenides and Irene, who are in the midst of a bloody war in which they are greatly outnumber against an imperialist force. Irene asks her husband what troubles him, and he admits that he had thought it wrong to sit back and watch his men die, which is why he had insisted on fighting on the front lines. Now, though, he says, “I am not so sure. From above, I can see men on both sides, trapped in a war over which they have no control. On the field, I care about nothing but striking down anyone who strikes at me.” Here, Eugenides admits that leadership, removed though it is, makes him keenly aware of the costs. Irene then, corrects him gently when he seems to assign a moral value to this, turning himself into more of a monster when he is fighting than when he is observing. She says, “Your morality up on the hillside is an illusion, no more real than the freedom you imagine you have from it in battle. All wars make men monsters. All wars and all men.”


Irene’s words seem a death knell for the idea of a righteous war. The world has changed in the past 70 years, and so has the fantasy genre. Perhaps it is time fantasy re-evalute the relationship that it has with war and violence. For one, we need to confront the idea of moral injury. It is not enough to simply show that a fantasy character has nightmares about war, or that a character regrets killing innocents, the writer must confront the very premise upon which these stories are built, and ask ourselves, and have our characters ask us, as writers, are these wars necessary? Will our characters bear the costs of violence and cruelty? And if these wars and violent acts are not strictly necessary, our narratives must convey that participating in them comes at a great and lasting cost, one that is borne not just by innocent civilians, but by every person who breaks their own moral code by inflicting death and suffering unto others.

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