Sunday, 27 April 2014

Guest Post: 'Gandalf's Hand Sanitizer' by Brian Staveley

Yesterday I introduced you to the one and only Brian Staveley - writer, editor, father, teacher (in no particular order, of course). Brian's a busy man, and when he's not doing any of the above he's sharing his thoughts and opinions on topics within the fantasy genre. From swearing in fantasy to what motivates the bad guys, Brian isn't afraid to sugar coat his insight into the fantasy realm. It's a refreshing take on things that we either overlook or forgive our favourite authors for. Brian posts these articles on his blog, but he was kind enough to submit one here, on Written-With-A-Sword.

So, without further ado, I give you Brian Stately and 'Gandalf's Hand Sanitizer - The Wounds of Fantasy.'

A very partial list of the things that could kill you in the absence of modern medicine: bees, thorns, nuts, horses, mosquitoes, childbirth, chicken, spinach, farming, dogs, rats, rusty tacks, ticks, and shit.*
If you live in a part of the world without access to cipro and epi pens, doxycycline and tetanus shots, penicillin and measles vaccines, chances are one of these things will kill you. To feel the gravity of the situation, just try the following experiment: go somewhere remote. Hike a week into the backcountry or get dropped off by a float plane. Now break your leg with a rock. Take notes about the experience so the rest of us can appreciate your observations after your death, which will probably be imminent. Without a hospital nearby, a broken leg can be a death sentence. In fact, everything starts to look like a potential death sentence. Appendicitis is easily treatable when you live in Columbus, Ohio. Get it while mountaineering in the Brooks Range and you die.
In traditional epic fantasy, of course, no one has access to modern medicine. You’d rarely know that, though, from the way the characters carry on. Wounded soldiers will occasionally battle infection, the odd woman will die in childbirth, but by and large the heroes and villains appear blithely unconcerned by the mortal threats surrounding them. During the American Civil War, two out of every three soldiers fell to disease or infection.  When was the last time you saw a fantasy character die of tetanus? Or malaria? Or anaphylactic shock? Or salmonella?
I get it, of course. A fantasy novel in which the main characters languish in the grip of chronic illness hardly sounds like delightful reading. If the Lord of the Rings played out in the real world, Sam would collapse of dengue fever contracted in the Dead Marshes, Gollum would be long dead from some raw-trout-borne illness, and Frodo, rescued from the taint of the Morgul-blade, would succumb to a staph infection. No one wants to read that book, least of all me.
Moreover, to be fair to writers of fantasy, magic often fills the void left by the absence of modern medicine. Lizard men leave a nasty gash in your shoulder? Heal it up with a little magic salve. The unpleasant end of a dagger stuck in your leg? Have the local witch lay hands on it. That arrow straight through the gut? A few runes and a muttered incantation ought to do the trick. This is the whole point of healers and potions in games like Elder Scrolls. Without magic no one would ever win. Ever.
The magic-as-medicine approach works, and can work elegantly. It does, however, invite a sort of macabre escalation. When the rules of healing are murky, there’s no reason for an author not to raise the stakes in every battle, and it is oh, so tempting to raise the stakes. The escalation of physical violence is an ancient authorial impulse – Beowulf isn’t content to wrestle Grendel; he rips his entire arm off and hangs it from rafters – but it’s encouraged by the calibration of the modern reader.
If you cut sliced your hand open with a dirty knife tomorrow, you’d probably be irritated but not terrified. The most inept emergency room in America could have you out the door in an hour and your life expectancy would be excellent. As a result, a slashed up hand just doesn’t impress us. We’d be pissed off if Aragorn keeled over from an injury incurred during food preparation.
In fourteenth century, however, a knife wound was serious shit. If you hacked into your palm while gutting a goat, there wasn’t much to do but stare at the wound, offer a prayer, and try really hard not to die. And if mortality rates are any indication, the stare-prayer-try method wasn’t all that reliable.
Hence an interesting predicament: modern writers and readers of fantasy are out of tune with the gravity of the injuries about which we read and write. Wounds large enough to impress our super-size sensibilities would almost certainly annihilate any character without magical protection. Plausible wounds, on the other hand, are boring.
This isn’t a call to action. As I said above, I don’t really want to read a whole lot of books in which elite mystical assassins succumb to the ravages of food poisoning. Great battles and horrifying wounds are a staple of the genre (all of which is quite bullish for the potion-brewers and incantation-mutterers), but I’m sure that Gandalf has room, somewhere in that voluminous robe of his, for a small bottle of Purell.
* A good example, incidentally, of the value of the Oxford comma, which places beyond all doubt the idea that the ticks can kill independently of the shit. Although I’m sure that shit-dipped ticks could also be deadly.
Brian Staveley's debut 'The Emperor's Blades' is published by Tor, and is available from all major bookstores and Amazon. 
You can find out more about Brian on his blog

No comments:

Post a Comment