After last article’s break to look at the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the future of fantasy, it is time to return to the current series on the potentially boring nature of combat. As a reminder, this was the key point of one of my first articles on this blog. But in mid-March we began looking at this assertion from a different perspective. That being the modern pitfall of authors trying to force the strengths of movies and TV into the literary medium, sacrificing the power that lies in the written word. You can find that full discussion here. Now we are looking at examples where combat is written well by investigating how it was used by three major influences on me. We’ve already investigated Tolkien’s epic battle at Pelennor Fields in “The Return of the King.” Today, we turn to Lloyd Alexander.
Alexander wrote with a different style than Tolkien. His prose was of far less mythic proportions and his target was a much younger audience. But his stories have a depth that surpass the juvenile nature of the words to give meaning and enjoyment even for me as an adult… though I do recall being a chicken pox-ridden sixth grader trying to resist scratching at a host of sores as I plunged through the depths of his “Westmark” trilogy.
For my research on Lloyd Alexander, I had planned to look at the battle at Caer Dathyl (in “The High King”) which is probably the largest scale battle of his Prydain series, but will instead focus on the skirmish at Commot Isav and Taran’s subsequent duel with the brigand Dorath at the Mirror. These two scenes serve as the climax for “Taran Wanderer.” The reason for this is that the simpler nature of the Wanderer battles serve the purposes of our discussion better whereas Caer Dathyl is a ‘young adult’ audience equivalent to the Minas Tirith of Tolkien. This isn’t to say it lacks value, just that I’d like to broaden our scope.
The first thing that stood out to me is that, while Tolkien and Alexander write very differently, their battles and their duels follow the same basic form. As discussed with Tolkien, there is a scene and sequence structure within fights. Tolkien’s battles were surprisingly short, but Alexander’s are even shorter. The battle at Commot Isav lasts all of two pages and this is in the much larger young reader font. Caer Dathyl is a bit longer at five pages, but remains incredibly short. And the final fight between Taran and Dorath? Once it begins, the combat portion itself spans less than a page.
This is because the combat itself, by itself, is boring. The sequences instead focus on before and after where dialogue, thought, and action can have meaning. In the thick of the melee, Alexander turns, not to the positioning of swords and shields, but to Taran’s inner thoughts.
At Commot Isav, the focus is on Taran’s fear and doubt. He has become something of a reluctant leader and is afraid he’s led the common-folk to their doom. A similar tact is taken for his duel with Dorath at the Mirror. This is a much more personal battle. He and Dorath are alone at the object of all Taran’s hopes (and Dorath’s greed). As such, this fight takes on a different hue as it focuses on Taran’s sense of honor, his priorities, and his dreams. It captures, in miniscule, the journey he has personally walked from the beginning of the book to its conclusion.
In both fights, there is only brief description of sword blows, parries, and thrusts. These serve to define the sequence of the battle without taking over its focus. In so doing, the narrative is opened to opportunities for those meaningful moments where Taran must make choices between resolve and doubt, between self and others.
Combat isn’t boring in Lloyd Alexander’s works because combat isn’t the focus. The combat serves as the highly charged setting where the real crises of heart and soul are encountered… and defeated.