The difficulty of attempting to include humour in a fantasy novel is summed up very nicely by Diana Wynne Jones, in her superb book on the clichés and tropes of fantasy writing, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996):
“Jokes are against the Rules, except for very bad cumbersome jokes cracked by Guards, Mercenaries, Other Peoples and servitors. (It is believed that the Management actually thinks these are very good jokes, and treasures them.) Everyone else must be deadly serious, although the Small Man, some Wizards and most bad Kings are allowed to have a sense of humour …”
Some writers (including many of my esteemed colleagues of the Gumbee Fantasy Writers’ Guild) manage to pull it off, and we all know how successful Terry Pratchett is.
Personally, I find it very difficult to write humour, and have tended to avoid it where I can. However, I do like my characters to be ‘real’, and therefore I have included episodes of banter. Perhaps my readers won’t find any of it funny, exactly; but I would always hope that it will convey the bonhomie of my characters. Often it also reveals information about how the characters in my novels view the world around them (see the previous theme of ‘How characters interact with their worlds’).
This first excerpt comes from the novel Fields of Battle. Kieldrou, the Count of Trall, is riding to join his army, and he is joined on the road by a group of his men-at-arms, who have been kicking their heels on one of his manors. With them also is Aelfric, a veritable giant of a man and a ferocious warrior, who has only recently become one of Kieldrou’s most trusted companions. As well as the soldiers’ joking about Aelfric, the conversation also shows us the high regard in which the Trallians hold themselves.
“Honestly, my lord,” their captain said. “We exercised the horses, we practised our arms, and we even built a new barn for your seneschal, just to keep ourselves busy. But your message to meet you was a great relief. Is it true that the Hussanians have invaded Barrowgrar, then?”
“It is. Fernhelm is still there, with around twenty of his foresters, and a couple of hundred Hograthian soldiers. But, if I am right, there are thousands upon thousands of Hussanians there, too.”
One of the soldiers grinned. “That seems a bit one-sided, my lord. Could Fernhelm not send a few of his men away, to even things out a bit?”
They all laughed at that, and Kieldrou let the jokes die down before becoming serious again. “It will be a hard ride, lads. I know you are up for it, but I have to say I don’t know what we will find when we get there. I’m expecting around fifteen thousand men to have come over from Trall, but I expect the Hussanians will have three or four times that number. We have to establish a presence in Barrowgrar and hold it until the Hograthians can come to our aid. But I don’t know how long that will be.”
The men instinctively knew that this was not a matter for more jokes. “We will do what we must, my lord,” the captain said. “We won’t let you down.”
“I know you won’t,” the count returned. “Because we are all men of Trall.”
“Aelfric isn’t,” the joker said, and everyone turned, fearing their comrade had made a terrible faux pas, knowing how much store the count put by the Phrionnsae. “Aelfric is a giant of Trall,” the man continued with a huge grin. Aelfric might have been born a Phrionnsae, and he might have spent no more than three weeks on Trall so far, but by that it was clear that he had already been adopted. The Phrionnsae cracked one of his rare grins, and the others laughed again.
Later, once Kieldrou is with his army, he repeats the ‘joke’ about the Trallians’ prowess:
“Listen, men,” he went on, holding his hands up for silence. “We’re marching at dawn. The Hussanians have invaded Barrowgrar, and we’re already late giving them a reply. There are twenty Trallians over there, facing thousands of Hussanians, with only a couple of hundred Hograthians to back them up. I know they won’t thank us for stealing their glory; but as one of them is my foster brother, I wouldn’t mind giving them a bit of a hand as soon as we can. So I need to speak to your captains, and you need to start packing.”
Poor old Aelfric is not to be let off the hook, either. As the army prepares to march off to face their enemies, some of the rank-and-file soldiers take a good look at the Phrionnsae, who now appears at his most terrifying, in full armour:
Aelfric rode beside Kieldrou, his bulk sitting easily on the great destrier that itself struck terror into any man who came close to its powerful legs and snapping jaws – they did not yet know that the Hussanians had thousands of these beasts. Aelfric had worn his armour this morning, appearing behind Kieldrou sporting his iron helm, which obscured his features save for the flash of his eyes through the dark-shadowed slits.
“He’s a demon,” whispered one trooper. “Look at the size of him. I’m glad he’s not the enemy.”
“Is being on our side any better?” asked his comrade with a nervous laugh. “He’s the stuff of legends, though, I reckon. Theops himself, come back to stand with us.”
“If he dies,” commented a third, spitting casually into the grass, and pulling on his own helmet, “ten to one says he takes a good few men to Hell with him.”
“He’ll draw the enemy to him like flies to honey,” the second man said. “Keep away from Aelfric, if you want to live, that’s what I say.”
The first man adjusted his gauntlets. “Keep behind him if you want to live, rather.”
The valour and prowess of the Trallians is obviously a bit of a joke, not just to the Trallians themselves, but to their allies, as well. In the novella Questions of Allegiance, the Hograthian army prepares to march to Barrowgrar, to join forces with the men of Trall. Once again the Trallians’ reputation receives an airing:
We were up with the dawn, roused by shouts from our constable, who had himself been woken by the marshals. When we rolled out of our cloaks, groaning, Harnic laughed.
“Don’t complain,” he called. “Apparently the Earl arrived late last night, and he wants us on the move as soon as possible.”
“Already?” complained Madric. “But the whole army isn’t here, surely?”
“Of course not, lad. The rest of the army is gathered further east, some even as far as Riverdeep. You wouldn’t expect the eastern levies to march all the way over here, away from Barrowgrar, would you?”
Madric gave a sheepish grin. “I don’t know. I don’t know where Riverdeep is, do I?”
“Anyway, we’re moving today, because the Hussanians have attacked Barrowgrar.”
We leaped to our feet, our tiredness and stiffness forgotten, and at once we crowded round Harnic, calling for more information. After nearly thirty days of training, preparation and marching, the expected attack had finally come.
“A messenger arrived from Randek on the day of the King’s coronation, apparently. Burst in just as Theofric was taking the homage of his barons. The Count of Trall left the City immediately, and he and his islanders might already be in Barrowgrar. That means that we have to hurry, otherwise it’ll be fifteen thousand Trallians against forty thousand Hussanians.”
“Sounds like an even fight, from what I know of the Trallians,” shouted one of the veterans from Gerroch town. We laughed: everyone knew of the quality of the islanders.
Harnic nodded. “Probably. But I doubt our good lords want the Count to gain all the glory. So, the quicker we can get there, the sooner we get to share the laurels. So pack up your gear and be ready to march.”
What I like about this last snippet is that it gave me another opportunity to demonstrate the characters’ interactions with their world. Most of the men of the Hograthian army have spent their whole lives in one place, never having travelled. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Madric should be so ignorant of the geography of the rest of the kingdom.
We now return to the novel Fields of Battle. Of course, not all conversations are humorous banter between groups of friends; there is the opportunity for bitching, as well. As Kieldrou, the Count of Trall, had recently married a foreigner, Rhianne, I wondered how she would be received by the aristocratic ladies of Hograth. In this last excerpt, Rhianne has just been introduced to a group of ladies, and their conversation has been most polite and proper. However, as soon as Rhianne moves on …
How could they fault the countess, who was both beautiful and clever, friendly and well-mannered? There was none of the cold haughtiness about her that they feared, or perhaps hoped to see, so that they might with justification find fault with her. Indeed, as the entourage passed on, what could they find to criticize?
“She is, of course, from Luourn,” one well-informed lady said confidentially to her friends. “That caused a stir here in Hograth, you can guess.”
“Hardly surprising, though,” tutted the wife of Elnir Terendor, the lord of Vergira. “Kieldrou is so rarely at home, it is natural that he should end up with a foreigner.”
“It’s not really right, though, is it? I mean, the Count of Trall with a foreign bride.” The first lady, Theodora, the wife of the lord of Millacre, was in her stride now.
“Well, there are some who say he is from the north himself,” whispered the waspish wife of Pardron Ennivar of Steerchase. “He was only adopted by the old count, you know.”
The fourth lady of the group was Egitha, wife to Hemdell Mendivar of Elfinvale, who was the great-nephew of Rhegus, the Earl of Mendivar. She waved away her friends’ comments. “I have heard she is truly delightful, whatever her provenance. And we must admit, ladies, that she is very lovely to look at. It is no wonder she entranced the count.”
“Black hair, though,” countered the lady of Millacre. Fair or red hair were the fashionable colours in Hograth, the epitome of beauty according to the poets. “And her skin is rather dark, I think.”
“By Hogra, Theodora,” Egitha of Elfinvale gasped, exasperated. “She’s descended from an Andalasian princess. Will you find fault with that, as well?”
The ladies fell silent. As far as pedigree was concerned, one could hardly complain about a scion of the Andalasian imperial family. Egitha, who had heard everything that Kieldrou had told Rhegus Mendivar about his wife, was not going to let on that Rhianne’s relationship to the throne of that eastern land was a long way removed.
If I tried to write humorous fantasy, I am sure I would fail. I hope, however, that I am able to introduce at least some light-heartedness to my characters, at least from time to time. This banter can be used to impart information to the reader, as well as to provide some insight into their personalities and opinions. All in all, I like to think that a spot of humour can add an essence of vérité which, otherwise, might be lacking.