Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The Battle of Five Armies: Of Orcs and Epics [Guest Post]
By GW Thomas
As I sat watching the last of The Hobbit trilogy of films I realized something. We take so much for granted in the 21st Century. Imagine if I had a time machine and could go back to 1936. I'd step out (fighting the desire to find a newsstand and buy copies of Weird Tales in pristine condition) and meet some fan of Fantasy (after a very long search) and we'd talk. We could discuss Lord Dunsany, perhaps the recently deceased Robert E Howard, or ER Eddison's The Worm Ouroboros. Then I'd mention something about vast orc armies and I'd get a strange stare. Of course, Tolkien's The Hobbit hasn't been published yet. My mistake.
But it isn't the word "orc" that is the problem. It's the entire concept of vast, epic battles between men and orcs that is the stumbling block. The Battle of Five Armies is the first of these. My 1936 companion may be ready for the idea, but he hasn't got it yet. I jump back into my time machine, whispering one beautiful word in his ear, "Hobbit," and disappear. (Unfortunately the experience of seeing me disappear in my time machine drives him to read Amazing Stories or Astounding instead and we lose him from the Fantasy pool. What can you do?)
In 1972, Gary Gygax is about to sit down with a bunch of buddies and Dungeons & Dragons is on. Those stats-driven warriors need something to fight. Of course, it has to be a goblin. After Tolkien's estate and Gygax hash out the copyright of certain terms, the deal is done. Pairing this with the success in 1977 of the Tolkien clone, The Sword of Shannara, epic fantasy is now set to boil. The creation of Derivative Fantasy! Anybody can write of such creatures! The world of Fantasy now has its generic monster, the Orc. In any video game, any book, any RPG, the orc is the opponent in armor that warriors face everywhere.
And one hundred years later that, resulted in the genrification of the orc as common military assailant. World of Warcraft; Orcs Must Die!; the latest hack Tolkien-esque bestseller. It's everywhere and its not going away any time soon. For better or worse, Fantasy has an epic scale today. The quaint, personal-sized Fantasy tale, be it the glorious works of Thomas Burnett Swann or even the Howardian tale of the lone barbarian, is awash in a sea of orcs and battle. There's not much you can do...
So there I sat this Christmas, watching what I felt was the best of the three Hobbit films, thinking: all Fantasy writers today have to make their peace with Tolkien and his orc armies. Either you accept them as part of what you are writing or you have to reject them and write something that is inherently anti-Tolkien. There is no middle ground any more. A book I read over the holiday made this even more evident to me. It was Conan the Invincible (1980) by Robert Jordan. In that rather pedestrian tale, Conan's enemy wizard has a race of scaly-skin henchmen called the S'Tarra. They are hidden in his castle fortress, breeding and preparing for the taking over of the world. Is it any surprise Jordan gave up writing Conans for pseudo-Tolkien in The Wheel of Time series?
Really what George was doing was that thing we must all do as modern Fantasy writers. Dealing with Tolkien. I believe GRRM has chosen to accept Tolkien, and though we haven't seen much of it yet, "Winter is Coming." What does that mean? Orc (or White Walkers and Wildings) armies. Tolkien is coming and George has the cajones to make us wait through six fat books for it. Long live the orc! He's going to be with for some time yet.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.