I originally posted a piece on anti-heroes in fantasy fiction as a guest blog months ago on Alison DeLuca's blogsite Fresh Pot Of Tea. It caught a few views, but I thought its topic was ideally suited to Skulldust Circle and its followers, so I'm re-posting it here :-D
As you're aware my genre is fantasy. I love it; have
always loved it, ever since I could read. As a kid I was captivated by the total
escapism of fantasy, by the idea of magic being a reality, by the virtues of
the heroic struggling against insurmountable evils. It was a passion fuelled by
an adolescence dedicated to role playing games, tucked away in mates’ sheds and
front rooms, for far too many hours until my complexion emulated Gollum on a
So here’s a quandary. Given that many
of us who read fantasy and sci-fi and all its sub-sub genres (Elfpunk anyone?) came into the genre
loving tales of the great and good defeating the gibbering armies of The Dark Tm
, how come the anti-hero is so pervasive in speculative fiction?
They’re everywhere! Take the most
successful fantasy series of the last ten years—George RR Martin’s Song of Ice
and Fire—it is replete with anti-heroes. Tyrion Lannister has to be the
favourite character amongst a sea of schemers and blaggards. He’s selfish, rude,
corrupt, bitter, in fact all the traits that make a great bad guy. Yet amongst
his venom there are redeeming features that make us fascinated by him. By book
two we love him and by the latest he’s more or less the only one (other than
Arya) we care about.
Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards
series has Locke Lamora, a thief and a con-man as the main character. Here we
have a different flavour of anti-hero. Whereas Tyrion is a nasty piece of work
who occasionally displays redeeming features, Locke is actually an alright guy—he
loves his friends etc.—who screws people over for a living. Like Robin Hood or
the IRS. He’s a ‘hero’ who is also criminal.
And there’s so many more in
fantasy that you wonder if we ever wanted true heroes. Severian in Gene Wolfe’s
The Book of the New Sun (torturer…tick), Sand dan Glotka in Abercrombie’s The
First Law books (yay, another torturer…tick), Thomas Covenant in Donaldson’s
epic (rapist…tick), Cugel the Clever in Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth
(thief, cheat, rake…tick), Raistlin in Dragonlance (black magic, betray
brother…OK…tick), Fitz in Hobb’s Farseer trilogy (assassin? Hey, sure…beats
looking after the horses…tick) and, of course, Elric.
Now Elric I did love as a kid. More accurately I coveted Stormbringer, the soul-drinking
sword that Elric was dominated by. To a DnD player the idea of a sword that
munched on opponents life energy (and therefore boosted your own) was
fantastic. The weapon Black-razor in White Plume Mountain was an obvious copy
and Elric even got his own RPG supplement for RuneQuest.
Elric was the first great fantasy
anti-hero in my mind. Before him we had the muscle bound might of Conan, the
noble Aragorn and the almost biblical Aslan. In his very first appearance we
meet him on the way to slaughter his own nation. He then further fails to
impress us by wining about his doom-ridden destiny, betraying people all over
the place, becoming addicted to a vampire-sword and then killing all his
buddies one by one. Admittedly some he kills by accident, because he gets
carried away with Stormbringer; but you’d still not add him as a friend on
Facebook would you?
So why do we love them? These are
characters that are far darker than the tough guys of the cinema. We all admire
the surly Han Solo and love the hard as nails Clint Eastwood characters. But
these are characters that are morally dubious, at times nasty and at times
ruthless. They are killers, torturers, thieves—the sort most of us would eschew
in reality. Why do we enjoy reading about them?
I think it’s the escapism in
another form and I think therefore that that is why fantasy (the ultimate
asylum from our troubled world) is replete with them. These are characters
whose achievements within the books seem all the more admirable, characters
that surpass all the faults and the weaknesses that they have, to become
victorious. They are creations who resonate with us because of their flaws,
which after all we all have (though perhaps not to the extent of these
characters). Why should a being in a fantasy world have to have any less
hang-ups than us?
Anti-heroes act in ways that
appeal to our darker instincts. They allow us to slip away from the frustration
of modern life and the constraints of society and unleash a bit of spite. Far
better to read about Tyrion Lannister’s Machiavellian antics or Elric hoovering
up a few souls than turn around and give our annoying bosses a head-butt on the
And we can see characters every
bit as flawed as ourselves and revel in the redemption that many achieve and
know that for even the most screwed-up and damaged that there is hope.
So long live the anti-hero and
remember even Aslan probably had some darker moments that were cut from the
books. I fact I distinctly remember him hanging out with the Snow Witch sharing