On this day, a new challenger approaches the stand. A fresh face, Malkuthe brings to the table almost nine years of worldbuilding experience and is here to talk about war in fantasy, its motivations, and the role that it plays in developing the political landscape and history of a fantasy realm. Right now, he doesn’t have much in the way of articles on the blog, but soon enough you’ll be able to see more of his work HERE.
Even a cursory glance at the history of our own world reveals that wars, big and small, play a great role in the path that our world has taken to where it is today. From the rivalry between Athens and Sparta in ancient Greece, to the endless struggle between Rome and the Carthaginians, to the world-wide conflict incited by Nazi Germany, and now, to the seemingly-endless futility in the Middle East, war has been as much a part of human history as peace. It only makes sense, then, that war in a fantasy world, which often involves more than one species pitted against another, would have as much if not more of an effect on the history of that particular world.
The Motivations of War
There are many reasons for which wars have been waged in the stories history of our species. Many times, war is declared as a matter of political prudence, taking advantage of a weaker opponent to bolster one’s own nation and power. Some times, war is motivated by ideological reasons, religious, nationalistic, or otherwise. Other times, war happens in retribution for some grievous slight. A lot of the time, war is sparked by an insatiable appetite for resources, be it natural resources or land and manpower. Sometimes, as it so happened in the First World War, conflict can break out due to high tensions and a terrible string of unfortunate circumstances.
I’ll take the time to discuss three of these possible motivations for war: Ideology, Resources, and Retribution.
Ideology — Ideologies that motivate wars take on many different forms. The Crusades, for example, were the result of the desire of Christendom to take back the holy land of Jerusalem, that had, at the time, been taken under Islamic rule. Nazi Germany’s war on the Jewish people was motivated by the idea of a ‘master race.’ In the Philippines, the KKK ang Kataas-taasang, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga anak ng bayan, (The Highest, Most Honourable Society of the Sons of the Nation), a revolutionary society, fought against 300 years of Spanish colonial rule in the name of freedom and democracy.
It is not so difficult to imagine ideologies sparking wars in a fantasy realm. In fact, in more traditional fantasy settings, it would be hard to imagine how they wouldn’t. When there are multiple races in the mix, each with its own history, its own mythology, its own biology, and its own religious justification for its existence, there are so many points of friction that could eventually end up lighting a fire.
In the world of Sekhar, one of my settings, there are two different empires of Elf, the Dominion of the Tretâllë and the Silvered Realm of the Elledŷnnë. According to the myths of the Dominion, the Elledŷnnë enslaved the Tretâllë unjustly and after being freed from their chains, they were tasked by their god, the Stranger, to punish their slavers. In contrast, the Elledŷnnë believe that the Tretâllë are twisted creatures sent by their version of the devil to lead them astray from the path of their primary deity, the Triple Goddess. This ideological divide between these two empires has caused a near-constant conflict between them, one that has sent ripples throughout that fantasy world for many thousands of years.
Resources — Especially for agrarian societies or cultures with a need for luxury goods or resources, the abundance of those resources in other places or the relative scarcity of those resources in their own territories is at times enough of a reason to wage war on others. The most common expression of resources as a reason for war is expansionism. One could argue that the entirety of the Colonial Era, was the result of the desire of European nations to have access not only to luxury goods, but to have stable sources for industrial goods.
In a fantasy world, it isn’t too far-fetched that wars over resources will spark every now and again in the course of history. In fantasy worlds, especially, entire tribes or even kingdoms of people can exist in largely uninhabitable lands, existing in small pockets where things, while not necessarily good, are not as bad as other places. These groups of people will more than likely be extremely motivated to spread outward and conquer lands in more hospitable and bountiful areas of the world.
Again in the world of Sekhar, war is sparked between the kingdoms of the Dwarves and the kingdoms of Man in a continent far away from the warring Dominion and Silvered Realm. In this case, the Dwarves are a rapidly breeding people whose population has grown too large and too rapidly for their subterranean cities. However, due to an old treaty, the Dwarves are barred from taking territory on the surface, a treaty that is broken out of necessity to make way for the ever-growing population. The kingdoms of Man don’t take lightly to the breach of the treaty, and as a result, war breaks out over surface territory that the Dwarves need, but that Man doesn’t want to give up.
Retribution — Although less common than the previous two, wars of retribution definitely have been fought over the course of human history. One of the most prominent of these was a revolt led by the Irish Queen Boudica who led the Iceni peoples against the Roman Empire after her lands, which had been left to her and the Roman Emperor jointly by her deceased father in his will, were annexed by Rome.
If the mythology of Greece, Rome, and numerous other ancient cultures in our world are anything to go by, wars of retribution would be common in a fantasy world. The Athenian King Theseus sparked the Amazon war, the Amazonomachy, as a result of his kidnapping of the Amazonian Queen. Greece was plunged into war against Troy after Paris kidnapped Helen from Menelaus.
Although kidnappings might make for excuses for war, it is important to note that in a fantasy world, that an emancipated race that was once enslaved may seek revenge against its slavers. One could argue that though the war of the Dominion against the Silvered Realm in Sekhar is ideologically driven, it is also a war of retribution for the hundreds of years of slavery that the Tretâllë attest they suffered under the thumb of the Elledŷnnë.
The Effects of War and How to Use Them in Worldbuilding
Now that we have some of the factors that cause war firmly fixed in our minds, we must turn to how war affects the flow of history in a particular world. If we look at our world, we can see that many technological advancements are the direct result of the arms race that wars inevitably cause. Without war as a motivator, we would likely not have reached space, much less the moon, until much later. Alternatively, without war, we might not have had the internet, which started out as a defense project by DARPA, and, without war, we might not have had the development of the nuclear bomb and the nuclear energy technology that sprang from that.
Beyond technological advancement, however, war influences the culture of its participants, alters the political landscape, and creates lasting effects that could at some point precipitate into more war. To see this, one only has to take a look at the Middle East, where Western meddling has not only failed to set things straight, but has also created tensions and resentment that likely contributed to the crisis that Syria is experiencing. Not only are political borders being redrawn in that area of the world, but millions of people who share a culture are being displaced to countries all over. These people, in seeking refuge in other nations, will inevitably affect the cultures that they migrate into, and cultural friction that happens here might well incite further conflict later down the line.
One way of developing a fantasy world that feels as though it is living and breathing is by creating a compelling history that leads to the moment that your narrative begins. An easy way of crafting a compelling history is to use the natural progression of war to set the stage with different nations with different ideologies and resource requirements. Examine these different nations and decide which ones have the greatest friction between one another. Decide which nations are rivals, which ones have tenuous friendships, and which ones are allies, all based on their different resource needs and ideologies.
When you’re ready to begin weaving a history of your world, think of a singular precipitating event that begins a war, even if it is just between two minor nations. Decide who wins the war and how. Don’t be afraid of using political intrigue. A desperate kingdom is more likely to enlist the help of a stronger more powerful ally just to survive, and just like that, another nation is pulled into the fray. Think of whatever technological advances might give one nation an advantage over the other. Were cannons invented? Was gunpowder discovered?
When the first war is over, consider the consequences. Redraw the borders of the nations and examine what happened to them. Did one nation grow? Did another completely vanish? What happens to the loser? Are they annexed but allowed to live as they used to, only now paying taxes to a different ruler or are they enslaved and forced to serve the winners? What happens if the nation that was at a disadvantage won by having a stronger ally? Surely they couldn’t have lured in that ally without a promise. Do they fulfil the promise? What if they don’t? What if the people don’t want to fulfil the promise and instead rebel against their leader who wants to?
Remember that the aftermath of war is a breeding ground for grinding resentment which could very well break out into open war later down the line. If the losing nation is enslaved and the winning nation comes under the rule of a weaker king, is it possible that the defeated nation will find an opportunity to spark an uprising and fight for independence?
If anything, one of the most important things that you should keep in mind when creating a history that involves war is that often, it only takes a single war to spark hundreds of others. As the years go by, that single war that you started might cause friction with nations that weren’t even involved in the original conflict. A theocratic empire, for example, might notice the development of the cannon as a violation of their god’s edicts and march against a lesser nation. Alternatively, a different empire might see the cannon as a threat to its security and ally with the theocratic empire to end the menace. When that war is over, and the land remains to be divided, and neither empire is willing to give ground, will their alliance dissolve and another war begin?
When will the wars end, if ever, and how do they shape the face of the modern world at the start of your story? Which nations have grown from their humble beginnings to span vast swathes of territory? Which ancient empires have collapsed to the point of obscurity? How has war affected the composition of your demographics? How many people have been displaced from their homes, never to return to them? How many of those people want to return to their ancestral lands but can’t because another rules there instead? How many of those people are survivors of genocide, spared only because they managed to flee when so many others weren’t?
War might not, in any way, be pleasant, but it cannot be denied that in shaping history, it is a force to be reckoned with. Any fantasy writer shouldn’t shy away from using war to establish the state of a world. If you answer the questions that I posed, you should be able to create something compelling—even better if you answer the questions that your answers to mine create.