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?)

Eighteen years later my machine takes me to see Tolkien give us more with The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien's vast ideas are starting to light new fires like Carroll Kendall's The Gammage Cup in 1959, with its army of mushroom warriors. I jump another ten years to see the campuses of America (along with an unauthorized paperback edition) drive Tolkien's popularity to the point where Led Zeppelin is singing of Gollum and Ringwraiths. We are approaching critical mass...

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.

But it wasn't always so. That is my point. The idea took a long time to get here. As scholars such as Michael Drout point out, it began in 1872 with a children's book by a Scottish minister. The book was The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald. Scholars and fans make a lot of noise about William Morris starting off the Modern Fantasy genre with his pseudo-Medieval novels like The Wood Beyond the World (1894), and he was vital in insuring that Fantasy would become a genre dominated by novels. But it is Macdonald that gave us the goblin foe; who gave Tolkien the leg up to write The Hobbit; who gave CS Lewis the inspiration to write of animal and monster armies in Narnia. Macdonald's tale of Curdie and the princess Irene seems quaint by today's epic, grand scale. A common boy and a restless princess discover a plot by the goblins to attack the castle, which eventually leads to an armed conflict. Despite the fight being appropriate for children, it did open the door to Fantasy tales in which humans are versed against an inhuman army. Eddison would use it to create two human armies in The Worm Ouroboros (calling them Demons and Witches), but it was Tolkien's The Hobbit that cemented the idea for all time.

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...

For example, back around 1988, I met L Sprague de Camp at a convention in Calgary. I spoke with him about a project I had abandoned, that of converting his Novaria novels to an RPG setting. He thought I should keep at it, but I knew ultimately it wouldn't work. Why? No orcs. No elves. Novaria is a Fantasy world filled with humans. There are demons and magic, but all the armies are men. You can't fight the tide with your bare hands.

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?

Another author of note, one who shares Tolkien's double middle initials (Raymond Richard, not Ronald Reuel), is George RR Martin. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice shows a new ingenuity with this Tolkien dilemma. Martin has combined the two most commercially successful Science Fiction (Dune) and Fantasy (Lord of the Rings) franchises to create the Game of Thrones books. This sounds like I am disparaging him but this is far from the truth. I have the highest respect for GRRM. First off, for his amazing story writing before Game of Thrones with classics like "Way of Cross and Dragon" and "Sandkings," but secondly for his masterful control of character, which allows us to watch or read a story with dozens of distinct characters, each worthy of a tale of their own. So I glibly say "combined the political essence Dune and the fantastic world of LOTR," but go ahead; try it.

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 He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

1 comment:

Kelly Sedinger said...

This post is terrific. It really is.


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