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It’s what you know that ain’t so: the high fantasy edition, volume 37 - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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It’s what you know that ain’t so: the high fantasy edition, volume 37 [Oct. 18th, 2014|12:46 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I can’t count how many volumes of high fantasy I’ve read that get categorized as inspired by medieval Western Europe. By this I mean I don’t feel like trying to estimate, because I have a spreadsheet that goes back over a decade and marks things by genre (“speculative,” though, rather than “high fantasy”–so it would be incredibly tedious). Point being: lots. Many to most of them pre-gun. Many to most of them featuring, at least peripherally, soldiers and armies.


Almost all of them have the soldiers in some kind of uniform.


If the soldiers are a major part of the narrative rather than “I passed a soldier in the street” (recognized by uniform), learning to march in step is almost always a part of the story.


And yet. Here’s the passage from Essays in Swedish History, specifically “The Military Revolution”:


The demand for unanimity and precision of movement led naturally to the innovation of marching in step, which appears at some date impossible to establish about the middle of the seventeenth century. And the principle of mass-subordination, of the solution of the individual will in the will of the commander, received a last reinforcement with the slow adoption of uniforms: ‘without uniforms,’ said Frederick the Great, ‘there can be no discipline.’ The process was already observable in the 1620s; but it was scarcely complete by the end of the century. The long delay is easily explained. As long as body-armour remained general, uniforms were scarcely practical; and even when armour was abandoned, the common use of the sword-resisting buff-coat prevented for a time a general change.


So…yeah. It’s not that movement in unison was unheard-of (if you have spears or pikes, you pretty much have to coordinate the movement–although in those cases shuffling together is sometimes as good as marching in step), and it’s not that nobody ever had clothes alike. But “this section of the army is so-and-so’s guard” is very different from “the entire army has a uniform.” If you look up “Flemish painting soldiers” or “Dutch painting soldiers” or either of those two ethnicities with “siege of” instead of “soldiers,” you will get paintings of people not dressed alike. Because they are off duty? Not in the sieges! No, because uniforms were not standard. Because an armband or something in your hat was what you had, more or less.


Here’s the thing: you can do this if you want, in your secondary world, even though it was not at all standard in this world in that period. You can do it no problem. “In my world they got there sooner, as a standard.” Fine. It’s one of the benefits of making it up. It’s a little dicey that so many people seem to want to. But you can jump on that bandwagon if you wish. Here’s the thing, though. Yesterday I read a blog post by Mark Lawrence in which he was talking about some of the questions he gets asked about why fantasy–his in specific–is “conservative” in some particular ways. And one of his answers–one of the standard answers–is that if the world is not focused on (in his example) a world with six suns or a complex symbiosis with aliens, putting those things in will bog down the book. And sure, yes. I get that. We end up talking about this when we talk about ways to draw on history, especially at Fourth Street–that of the cool ideas we discuss, it will be hard for any one book to take on all of them, because they will all take word count. It sounds like some of the questions Mark Lawrence is getting are pretty unreasonable, and I don’t mean to say that he does this specific thing–haven’t read his stuff.


But what I’m saying is: efficiency does not account for all of the conservatism of high/epic fantasy. sometimes the forms of “conservatism” that readers are noticing are historically inaccurate and bog down the book, and also are missing opportunities to be interesting. The books that I read that describe the soldiers’ uniforms, or describe soldiers learning to march in step: they are taking word count to make something simultaneously more generic and less historically accurate to the time period and general location that gets the credit for inspiring high/epic fantasy. It can be a phrase here and there, or it can be entire chapters. But in this case either historical inspiration or imagination would give you something more interesting than the blurred carbon copy of a misconception.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: pameladean
2014-10-18 06:17 pm (UTC)
I got a weird amount of pushback -- not from the Scribblies, but from random beta readers or people who read the published books -- about the fact that soldiers in the Secret Country are divided into groups named for flowers, and have their particular flower embroidered on a sash or cap. This was not right, it was not a proper kind of uniform, it was feminine, on and on. It has historical analogs, but they really just did not like it.

The various fixed notions that both readers and writers have are very odd, and I am glad that you periodically write something that should shake them up.

P.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2014-10-18 08:06 pm (UTC)
A lot of demmed elusive pimpernels, eh?
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2014-10-19 12:29 am (UTC)
IKNOWRIGHT?

P.
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[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2014-10-19 04:35 am (UTC)
"Oh, please have Scarlet Pimpernels," begged Lawrie. "Please do. Because of Sir Percy, you know. None of the other Patrols have anyone like that."

" 'They seek him here, they seek him there,' " said Lois automatically. "It's a thought. Shall we be demmed elusive Pimpernels?"

"I'd rather be a Lily," said Marie obstinately.

--Antonia Forest, Autumn Term
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From: sheff_dogs
2014-10-18 09:18 pm (UTC)
But but but Plantagentets! Whose badge was a sprig of Genista or broom, until they started fighting each other when they used red or white roses!
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2014-10-19 12:30 am (UTC)
Yep. I mean really.

P.
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[User Picture]From: sethg_prime
2014-10-19 11:37 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but only fans of a certain obscure Elizabethan playwright would know such details.
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From: sheff_dogs
2014-10-21 02:55 pm (UTC)
That made me laugh. Although I learnt about this first in junior school history way before I encountered the obscure playwright.
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From: dsgood
2014-10-18 06:40 pm (UTC)
Writers (including fantasy writers) also get the last half of the 20th Century wrong.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2014-10-18 09:13 pm (UTC)
It's kind of fun to play with, I think--problems with dyes and consistency, group identity, training issues, the finances of a standing army . . . .
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[User Picture]From: oursin
2014-10-18 09:43 pm (UTC)
Voila Rembrandt's The Night Watch, which actually represents a local C17th Dutch militia company. (I am not really sure how far I would concur with the analysis in that column.)

However Franz Hals' paintings of the St George Militia Company in 1616 1627 and 139 do show a certain uniformity.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2014-10-18 10:24 pm (UTC)
Officers would have the money to standardize their garb if they wanted to, though - a tradition probably inherited from various knightly/fraternal orders and their celebrations.

This was far from the case for most actual foot soldiers and militiamen; the average Dutch militiaman was probably wealthier than your average Spanish footsoldier (for example) and would thus be able to look respectable on patrol, but having a garment specifically for patrolling would be a bit much to ask.
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[User Picture]From: oursin
2014-10-18 10:26 pm (UTC)
I was wondering about Guild liveries as a possible model.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2014-10-19 10:31 am (UTC)
Leeks! Leeks in hats!
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(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-19 11:29 am (UTC)
Yes: the backup thing. Nobody ever has the backup token in fantasy, even though the leeks and daffodils are staring us right in the Shakespeare. I mean, it's a funny scene. But still.
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[User Picture]From: aamcnamara
2014-10-19 11:48 am (UTC)
"sometimes the forms of “conservatism” that readers are noticing are historically inaccurate and bog down the book, and also are missing opportunities to be interesting"
Yes this yes. The stories I wrote when I was 12 were based entirely on what other books set in places like that had said about that kind of world--stories I write now should not necessarily do that. (The first draft still might, though. Because it's impossible to research everything before you start writing.)
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[User Picture]From: swords_and_pens
2014-10-20 05:07 pm (UTC)
This is why I went with sashes (English Civil War, anyone?), although I do need to do more with flowers and other natural forms of demarcation in future.

I suspect part of this use of uniforms comes not just from transposing the modern (and established tropes) back on the medieval, but also taking perceptions of the ancient and moving them forward. A number of people who put their soldiers in uniform might very well point back to the Roman legions (and the popular perception of them) for inspiration/justification as much as they would point forward to later traditions. If the Romans had them, why can't the troops of the Duchy of Gildedepaulettes??? Mind, there are a whole host of answers to this, including things like context and history and rises and falls, but most people don't bother with that. Then again, I've read about enough ten pound long swords in fantasy to not have much of a bar when it comes to expectations and history anyhow (sadly).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2014-10-20 05:12 pm (UTC)
Sashes! Yes! Everyone can afford sashes!

(Also you can take them off quickly if you need to switch sides or desert....)
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2014-10-22 02:35 am (UTC)
Not enough people think about the practicalities of switching sides or deserting, in the context of non-modern warfare. Or even running away and plausibly claiming to not have been part of the defeated army.
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