At first glance, Phil Tucker's new series Chronicles of the Black Gate is a sprawling, good ol' high fantasy tale that mixes portals and feudalism, quiet character moments with cavalry charges, and hero's journeys with hierarchical systems of belief. (You should read this review of the first book The Path of Flames to get a better idea of the awesomeness than the one sentence I've just written.) It's also epic in its length, though thankfully Tucker manages to write it a helluva lot faster than GRRMartin does his Song of Ice and Fire ...
I asked Phil to talk about anything, and this is what he sent me in return. Enjoy "the Most Boring Blog Post in the World" (NOT)
You may want to avert your eyes. I’m going to delve into the unglamorous side of medieval warfare. Which is strange, when you think about it, because the subject I’m about to talk about is what won and decided wars. It’s the key. The kings and barons who paid attention to this area eventually excelled and won; those who spurned or mocked it managed a few glorious victories and then were shamed and sent home to their shattered kingdoms with their tails between their armor-clad legs.
In a word: economics.
There. Seventy three percent of you all just went gah and closed the browser window. Sixteen percent of you raised an eyebrow, while the rest got quietly and very intensely excited.
Economics. Considered in the Middle Ages beneath the dignity of a king, the province of bankers and Jews, a scurrilous and dishonorable affair. Ask any righteous knight what counted in battle, ask the chroniclers and even the peasants, and they’d tell you the same thing: honor. Valor. A Christian sensibility married to a willingness to hack your opponents to death. The excitement of the charge, the courage to enter the thick of melee and die for king and country.
And this was true, if we’re talking a single battle. But back then, oh, say six hundred years ago, just getting the knights into battle was about 80% of fighting a protracted war. Nobody wanted to pay for it. If you were the king you could order your vassals to come fight, and those directly beholden to you would, but everyone else? The idea of a nation state over which the king had absolute authority didn’t coalesce until the 17th century. Back in the 14th, the king was seen as a remarkably successful peer by some and a nuisance by the rest. He couldn’t just tax people. He had to ask them for money, hat in hand. And usually they said no.
Image taken from http://www.nbbmuseum.be/wpcontent/uploads/2009/11/wolhandel1.jpg
Which meant that assembling your glittering horde was never guaranteed - and once assembled, you had to fight now because it would ruin your nation if you waited. Charles V of France defeated the English invaders by simply never agreeing to fight him; every time the English managed to land a force in France, Charles avoided them, and eventually the frustrated knights went home, broke and furious. By not fighting the English, Charles reversed almost all of their gains from the previous phase of the war when his father had actually agreed to do battle and lost.
So what’s my point? Why am I going on about this? As an author with a penchant for writing epic fantasies with big battles, I’m painfully aware of how contrived most fantasy epics are. You know the scene: the Evil Lord is approaching with his horde of orcs, and the good King looks out over his throne room and waves his hand, and suddenly an army of a thousand glittering knights and five thousand men-at-arms magically appears, fully provisioned, equipped, and willing to do exactly as they’re told for as long as they’re needed.
It just didn’t work that way. It would take kings half a year to get an army together, and half the time the people who showed up early lost patience and went home by the time the war started. Armies revolted against their kings for lack of payment, or engaged in banditry and pillaging to augment their pay.
Economics decided who won wars in the long term. Not valor. Not heroism. Not bravery. The wealthiest nation inevitably fought the longest. Even if the poor enemy won every battle and seized every castle, in time they would be forced to retreat due to lack of pay and support if the home team was patient and wealthy.
Yet can an epic fantasy author reflect this in their books? It’s boring. Readers don’t want to hear about the headaches of taxation, of haggling with nobles to get their knights in the field, of losing the war because it took too long to get into battle. The reality of medieval warfare is incredibly complex and unglamorous. It’s William III haggling with wool merchants for two years so as to be able to invade France for three months and accomplish nothing.
Maybe that’s why it’s called fantasy. Not because of the orcs and dragons and magical swords, but because we believe - no expect - for a king to able to wage war as he wills, for a nation to agree to his every whim, for the fate of empires to be determined by a few key individuals instead of huge tidal forces of public opinion and the size of the nation’s coffers.
Thank you so much, Phil! As someone who studied Medieval History, I totally geeked out over this blog post. Possibly a little too hard, but yes! Finally someone said it out loud!
Here are the Chronicles of the Black Gate - see the beautiful covers and click on them to be directed to an Amazon near you.
You can find and follow Phil Tucker here:
Next week on Where is My Mind: TL Greylock
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