I had a great time this weekend at the World Fantasy Convention, this year held in Saratoga Springs, NY. One of the highlights came right at the end with a very thought-provoking panel about Weapons in Epic Fantasy. The panelists included Charles Gannon, Summer Hanford, and Ian Cameron Esselmont. I believe it was Cameron who made an interesting point I hadn’t considered in relation to my current work.
We were talking about the relationship between the hero of a fantasy work and his weapon. In an earlier age, and in much current fantasy, this relationship is personal–between the hero and his sword. These swords are often named, and sometimes have personalities and desires of their own, as in Travis Heerman’s Ronin series. The roots of this heroic bond go back to the roots of the epic, when it referred to a lengthy saga detailing the origin of a culture and revealing that culture from top to bottom. These original epics have what might be termed a warrior ethos: they focus on the deeds of the mighty individual as he confronts his enemies, often in a battle for personal honor as well as national pride.
Cameron brought up the difference between this warrior, and the soldier, a member of a trained and organized military unit. The soldier likely has personal honor and national pride among his values, but on the battlefield, he works for the objective of his unit or commander, subsuming his individual goals for those of the larger force. The effective soldier cooperates with his team and focuses on that larger goal, while the effective warrior stands apart from others. He may lead them–but then again, he may just retire to his tent and sulk for a while like Achilles during the Trojan War if he feels insulted. His (in the original epics, the hero is almost always male) personal values take precedence. This behavior is held up as an exemplar of the hero.
The soldier, on the other hand, may not be recognized for his individual feats, but rather for his successful participation in a team effort. Many years ago, I was wearing a pin with a reference to heroes, and an older writer, a journalist, commented, “I don’t like that word, heroes.” I have returned to his statement periodically, considering what he might have meant by it. This man was a decorated veteran of the second World War, a soldier, who did not approve of the word “heroes.”
I think now, he may have been referring to exactly this distinction between warrior and soldier. In modern warfare, the term “hero” is often applied to someone who stands apart, as did the warriors of old. The “hero” may have earned this term through their own honorable death, perhaps in service to that team effort. But you will often hear people warned, “Don’t be a hero.” Meaning, I think, don’t make yourself a target or a casualty by stepping outside the team.
There will always be soldiers who go above and beyond the call of duty and distinguish themselves, not for the behavior of the solitary warrior who places his pride above the needs of the unit, but because they take upon themselves actions that are daring and dangerous–and committed to furthering the team, and not themselves.
In this week of Veteran’s Day, I did not expect to find such fodder for consideration in fantasy–and yet, there it was. Heroes, warriors, soldiers. I hope, when I write, to honor their spirit if only from a respectful distance.