Friday, August 30, 2013

Men at War

As luck would have it, I’ve spent the last four weeks reading novels about war. This is not my usual fare, but thanks to a variety of Goodreads groups I have been tackling a range of titles from the Song of Igor’s Campaign (as translated by Vladimir Nabokov, it reads much better than, and in fact bears only a passing resemblance to, the original) through Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad and Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride to a pair of modern novels that I would never have picked up without the group recommendation. I just started Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation of Beowulf. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, set during World War II, might be considered a side read, since the war acts as a backdrop rather than the novel’s main focus.

Although Goodreads provided the impetus, I would not have read the books for that reason alone. As I approach the end of my rough draft for The Winged Horse, I realize that my hero and his brother are going to have to come to blows, or the resolution will not satisfy even the most pacifist of readers. Moreover, book 3, The Swan Princess, has Daniil directly engaged in Russia’s 1534–37 war with Lithuania. He’s supposed to be a military officer and good at his job; he can hardly sit by on the sidelines while the other guys wave their weapons and charge the enemy. So I regard the war novels as research.

But research for what? The specific scenes of blood and gore, when they don’t turn my stomach, do offer some insight into how one conducts a fight to the death—although, of course, I can’t copy those authors’ descriptions. But what interests me in these books is their depictions of the warrior mindset. The heroic mindset, in the classic sense of men (and I do mean men, for the most part) who live to pit themselves against an enemy—whether that enemy is supernatural, as in Beowulf, or all too human, like Napoleon’s troops in The Spanish Bride or Daniil’s Lithuanians.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this mindset comes across in its purest form in Beowulf, that relic of the Age of Heroes, despite the filter supplied by its Christian narrator. Beowulf does not seek death, but he does not fear it either. Death comes to everyone, when and where it wills, so the manner of a man’s death matters more than the fact of it. A hero seeks glory and, not coincidentally, treasure—the reward and to some degree the acknowledgment of renown. Great deeds guarantee immortality, as bards sing the hero’s praises and his companions and heirs transmit tales of his courage from generation to generation. The hero may perform his feats to serve his own or another ruler, to assist an equal, to avenge an insult or the death of a family member (vengeance is better than mourning, the poet tells us), or to save his people. But what makes the warrior a hero is his willingness to sacrifice himself for something that means more to him than life.

That element of the hero remains in modern fiction, where it has expanded to include women (for example, Nasan in The Golden Lynx), but the motives driving the sacrifice have changed since Beowulf’s day. In the books I’ve been reading, I can see the change happen. In the Song of Prince Igor—supposedly a twelfth-century tale, although rumors of its inauthenticity persist—the old lures of glory and renown remain. Hadji Murad retains the theme of the blood feud, although the hero cares more about doing all he can to protect his family than on the obligations he will incur if he fails. The two modern books—Blood Eye and Strategos: Born in the Borderlands—reflect those older societies of Vikings and Byzantines and try to recreate the driving power of fame and vengeance.

The Spanish Bride, the most successful of these books in bringing its historical characters to life as fully rounded people, clearly reveals the shift of consciousness. Glory and sacrifice still matter, but vengeance has almost disappeared. The glorious sacrifice here extends from the individual hero to entire companies, even armies. In place of the blood feud, we see a determination to treat local populations fairly and a willingness to trade courtesies with enemy combatants whom the characters will later face—and kill—in battle. (Strategos includes some of these elements as well.) Death remains a harsh reality for the soldier to cheat if possible; fear is underplayed or ignored. Yet the ideals of the modern state have triumphed, and the successful officer dreams of promotion, not of immortalization in a saga. The triumph that was once so individual has become collective.

And where do my characters stand on this trajectory? I can’t yet answer that question. Not completely. But my sense is that Ogodai and Daniil exist somewhere between Strategos and The Spanish Bride. Part of Ogodai’s struggle is that he must find his place among people who still believe in the heroic individual, whereas his own training places him in the collective glory camp. Daniil has not so far questioned his military obligations—which, in any case, he cannot escape. Perhaps he will, during the course of book 3, if something shocks him enough. It would make a good conflict.

Until I find out, I guess I’ll be reading more books about war....

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, “Battle Scene (1525–1550),” from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) by Firdawsi | F1954.4.

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