Today marks the conclusion of this four-part revisiting of the theories of combat in literature. I had begun by positing that combat is boring for a myriad of reasons. The focus in this series has been on how contemporary authors often seek to mimic the panoply of TV and movie special effects in the written medium… a medium for which this is very ill-suited. A better answer is for authors to use the strength of the written word in a way that the visual medium can only envy… to truly display what lies beneath.
To see this in action, we’ve been investigating the techniques of fantasy authors who were influential on me in my formative years. We’ve already looked at J.R.R. Tolkien and at Lloyd Alexander. Today we’ll see how Robert Jordan handled combat in his epic “Wheel of Time.”
For me, Robert Jordan represents great strength in writing but also severe pitfalls (two notables including his tendency to over-describe and his inability to control a six-part series that transformed into fourteen books). One thing he always did well was combat. He understood tension, suspense, and the critical role of jeopardy. He also knew how to use the potency of the written word.
Just as with Tolkien and Alexander, I wanted to look at both battles and duels. There are many duels spread throughout Jordan’s works, but I have to confess that few of them came readily to mind. Most are interlaced with magic and I want to focus here more on the martial side. One perfect fit occurs at the end of “The Great Hunt” when Rand faces a Seanchan Blademaster named High Lord Turok.
I was, once again, struck by the similar structure to Jordan and Alexander despite a very different style. Robert Jordan might be described as a transitional author. Tolkien was one of the founding fathers of modern fantasy. Lloyd Alexander wrote mainly in the 1960s to 1980s and fits into that era of early authors, though I’d argue, often with much more depth. But Jordan is a shift from the ‘80s style to the present day. He still follows the classic trope of young back country protagonists ‘making it big’ in the broader world. Yet many of the themes and styles are markedly more contemporary. Nevertheless, Jordan’s stories still are ones of hope (as opposed to the more recent obsession with nihilism). Despite the widespread combat and death, he is never grisly.
Nowhere is this more evident than the duel with Turok. Rand is in over his head and death is a real possibility (well, not really… that would violate Jordan’s authorial promise), but the focus isn’t on the fight. The narrative focuses on what’s going on within Rand. He wants to live, but he’s as afraid of touching the male half of the source as he is of dying. The sequence opens with his thoughts more than his actions as he desperately considers everything at stake.
Jordan spends more time than Tolkien or Alexander describing the combat. Yet his focus isn’t on the sword thrust and counter thrust but on the feeling of the fight. This isn’t done for the sake of the battle, but in support of the deeper theme of Rand’s struggle against the source.
As the duel continues, Jordan falls into his classic describe-while-not-describing fighting narrative using a litany of martial arts forms like “the swallow takes flight” and “rocks falling from a cliff.” Not being a martial artist, I don’t know if these are made up or not (I suspect they are). But they serve to show that fighting is occurring while ramping up the tension, without slowing down the story by actually describing unnecessary details. Indeed, I’d speculate that this technique gives the impression that Jordan provides more description than he actually does. It is a creative way of implying a blow-by-blow recounting without distracting the reader by taking a large amount much time to do it.
When Rand rises triumphant and Turok dies, Jordan is more descriptive compared to Tolkien or Alexander. He actually mentions blood on Rand’s sword and staining the carpet. But this is more to serve as sharp contrasts than feed on any bloodlust in the reader. Such gruesome depictions are unnecessary for the success and meaning of the moment. Indeed, here it leads to the focal point of the battle: Rand had just killed a man for the first time. Other themes converge here, too, and also branch outward. Because of its potency, it is a surprise to realize that the entire fight only spanned two pages.
The Battle of Dumai’s Wells occurs in Jordan’s sixth book, “Lord of Chaos.” It is, hands down, my favorite battle of the entire series even though it serves as a culmination of the “Wheel of Time”’s greatest flaw. That is, it concludes the deviation that began in Book 4 and ended in Book 6 resulting in the entire plot being thrown back almost to the beginning. It is because of this thread that Jordan was unable to complete the series in the planned six books as I’ve already mentioned. But that’s a tangent for another day.
The potency of Dumai’s Wells is, again, less in the battle than in the unveiling of a promise. Anticipation is its power. The promise is one that Jordan made for the readers earlier in the book when Rand was captured. After chapters of abuse, events come to a head. There is always the possibility that Rand will go into Book Seven still a prisoner (it being a foregone conclusion that the series won’t end here), but the reader hopes for a rescue and reads on with fevered anticipation. Jordan builds on that suspense with the tyranny and abuses of his captors, not to mention the deepening of the various political plots. So, while we are confident that Rand will escape, what we really want to see is how it will happen. This is, perhaps, the closest any of these examples get to the extreme dramatization of battle. In this instance it works. We yearn for it because of all the groundwork that has gone before.
Yet, even now, Jordan follows the tried and true technique. The battle, which spans a (relatively) massive fifteen pages is a blend of scene and sequence. Pockets of action, full of concise detail that focuses on emotion and energy are bound together by a wider scoping narrative that describes the whole battle in broader form. In those scenes, Jordan like Tolkien and Alexander, steers away from detailed description and more toward feelings. It is also in these times that he allows for sufficient lulls which are the building blocks of storytelling. Just like a full story in miniature, the battle grows through its own sub-acts to an epic final culmination that satisfies all the anticipations of the reader.
So what does this all mean?
First of all, my proclamation that “Combat is Boring” is, in its purest sense, a misnomer (but not a gross one). Tolkien, Alexander, Jordan and countless other authors are proof that combat isn’t boring when it is done right. The unfortunate truth, however, is that it is frequently done poorly. A battle scene is generally its own sub-story and, as such, should be treated with its own scenes and sequences. The fight itself can’t be the focus. Its center must, as ever, be plot and character. To this end, the fight must have meaning, cost, and real jeopardy.
Combat is kind of like light. Light behaves like a wave, but also like particle. Combat is an event, but often behaves more like a setting… albeit a very dynamic and dangerous one. Like a beautiful sunset, it is something the protagonist has feelings about. Like a thunderstorm, it is something the protagonist interacts with. It is a physical, mental, and spiritual location where emotions and interactions occur. Given its potency and its price, these interactions should be charged, challenging, and costly. Combat is a setting where high-stakes events unfold, but it is a “place.” Don’t get lost in it.