Thursday, 6 December 2012

Are Barbarians *the* heroes for our time?

Look, you've seen the blog title and (hopefully) read some of the other entries. It should come as no suprise that growing up I absolutely loved barbarians. In D&D I was the barbarian (or the druid if my whiny friends just had to have a healer), on TV I watched the Cheese-tastic Conan the Barbarian cartoon (after GI Joe but before Thundercats 7/8am central) I had a set of wooden swords my brothers picked up at a Renaissance fair that in my tiny hands might as well have been claymores.
This was all before I turned 18, picked up a axe and started spending my summers fighting other maniacs on fields and hills all over Britain.

Not Pictured: Sanity
So, with my bias on the table I'm now going to try and convince you, and by extension everyone else, that barbarians are in fact the best heroes for our time.

Barbarians are Universal

Fantasy and Science Fiction has a problem, and it's one that can be summed up with one pithy little observation: There are no Black People in Lord of the Rings. Those of you jumping up and down about the Haradrim or Easterlings should double check the book, they are described as 'dusky' usually and for the most part reflect the near eastern cultures of Arabia and the Steppes respectively. The reason for this is pretty simple, Tolkien was writing a Saga such as the ones he extensively studied as a professor of Norse and Old English literature and the Vikings had extensive contact with both of these cultures so he felt comfortable including them without breaking the world he made.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with Tolkien doing this. As I said, it fit the story he wanted to create. Where we run into problems is that because almost all modern fantasy is based on the formula he helped create (elves,dwarves, orcs etc) it is difficult to find any kind of cultural diversity in modern Fantasy. Science Fiction doesn't fare much better, with an abundance (particularly in games) of short haired brunette white guys fighting aliens (see Mass Effect, Halo, Battle:LA).

Some people have tried to correct this by sticking characters of different ethnicities into pre-built tropes of the genre. The problem is when most fantasy sticks to a High-Medieval setting this seems really forced because the whole deal (Knights, Castles and Fair Maidens) is all steeped in a specifically European/American worldview.

Take away the High-Fantasy though and make your setting a more Dark Age/Iron Age world of hundreds of different tribes and you don't need to force this multi-culturalism, it's literally there on a plate. No culture or race on earth hasn't gone through a stage of what could be called 'barbarism' it's a shared experience that's necessary to reach civilisation. We can use this shared experience to let characters interact on the same level, in a setting that is familiar to all of them.

Nothing illustrates this better then the man himself, Conan. In the original stories Conan hangs out with Picts, Cossacks, Pirates and African tribesmen and it never feels out of place. He just lives in a world where all these different people interact and everyone is as shocked as everyone else to discover new peoples.

What is best in life? To crush your enemies, To see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women...without noticing their skin colour.Source
Even in existing settings the barbarian is, by his very nature, foreign to *everyone* meaning he can come from whatever background he likes.

They're Working-Class Heroes

Quick, let's see what it takes to get your average medieval peasant to become either a knight in shining armour or a barbarian.

  1. A horse
  2. Learning how to ride a horse
  3. Padded shirt (gambeson)
  4. Chain shirt
  5. Full Plate
  6. Sword
  7. Money for a title
  8. Coat of Arms
  1. An Axe
  2. Anger
In case it's not obvious to anyone, one of these lists is alot more expensive then the other. Knights, shininess of their armour not withstanding, are by their nature an aristocratic hero. Even the ones played to be truly heroic are still going home to castles built by peasants and getting waited on hand and foot.

The majority of barbarian peoples, on the other hand, were just normal guys forced to pick up a weapon to cut a better life for themselves and their families out of the rich lands of more civilised folk.

I'm betting, at a time when faceless banks and governments have squandered literally millions of pounds seemingly without personal consequence there are more then a few people who have entertained fantasies of making things right by might. While I don't recommend caving the nearest bankers skull in, a bit of harmless escapism as an axe wielding nutter is surely an appealing option?


Swords are Overrated

Here, look at this sword fight!

Awesome right? Only thing is do you notice how only the rich guys have swords? That's because to make a sword is actually an insanely complex process during which any number of things can go wrong that wreck the whole project.

Do you notice how all the Lannister guardsmen are carrying spears? How, in fact, almost all the killing is done with spears? That's because these are the most common weapons in human history, so common in fact that we still use them today (Rifle+Bayonet=Spear). They're also one of the most brutally effective. Just look how it goes through poor Sean Beans leg.

Spears are also more valuable in practical terms then swords. You can use a spear to hunt and feed your family, similarly you can use an axe to fell trees and build houses. A sword is only good for killing people and even then only if it doesn't snap.

This lack of practicality makes spears and axes much more common then swords in history and in fantasy this is normally represented by barbarians.

I could write out an argument for why axes are awesome, but my feelings are well known, also it's self evident. Instead, here's a trailer showing a bunch of Romans being ripped apart by axes and spears...

So there we have it, my arguments for why Barbarians are the rightful heroes for our time.

Until we meet again friends, let us say Skål! and drink together.

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