Two men stand in the middle of the street, glaring intensely at one another, taking the measure of their opponent. Armies assembled on opposite sides of a field shout their rage, building up their will to risk injury and death. A shout! Battle! Shield walls crash together in mortal combat. Blades whistling through the air cause the hairs on your arms to stand. The ring of steel meeting steel echoes in your ear like a phantom. Wet, meaty, sounds of metal cutting into flesh and bone twist your guts. Screams of agony. Moans of despair. Cries of triumph! We love a good fight scene. Well… I do anyway.
Fantasy stories are lynch-pinned by great fight scenes. Sometimes it is Conan cutting his way through man and beast to win a kingdom or even just a meal. Other times it is Rand Al’Thor facing a blademaster in his quest to defeat the Dark One. Yet another time it might be Aragorn riding with King Theoden against the forces of Saruman.
Robert E. Howard had a visceral way of describing battle. It was what drew me to his writing as a young man. Reading about Conan was incredibly satisfying. I would excitedly read through interim scenes in Howard’s stories so that I could get to scenes like this, from Red Nails:
It was the death-fight of rabid wolves, blind, panting, merciless. Back and forth it surged, from door to dais, blades whickering and striking into flesh, blood spurting, feet stamping the crimson floor where redder pools were forming.
It didn’t hurt that many Conan stories came with great covers by Frank Frazetta, or other equally talented artists like Frank’s nephew, Ken Kelly, who did this great cover for Red Nails.
Robert Jordan, who in his early writing career penned some great Conan stories as well, sharpened his craft to a fine edge in the early novels of the Wheel of Time series. Instead of using primal descriptive phrases like Howard, Jordan chose to use a more poetic prose in his climactic fights. He created a fighting system described with names of maneuvers, that described the attack or defense with abstract terminology, and used them to lay out his fights. This gives the reader an opportunity to envision it their own mind without the fetters of precise description. One of the earlier examples can be found in The Great Hunt:
He was sure it must show on his face. To cover it, he rushed at Ba’alzamon. Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose. The Moon on the Water. The Swallow Rides the Air. Lightning arched between sword and staff.
One of my favorite scene’s of battle comes from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien in book three of The Lord of the Rings, The Treason of Isengard, part of The Two Towers. Aragorn and his companions, in support of Theoden, the King of Rohan, have survived a night of siege at the fortress of Helm’s Deep. Their situation is grim. Greatly outnumbered, Theoden has decided to sell their lives dearly in one last charge, when the morning brings new hope. The blasts of their horns continue to echo through the hills, telling them of the arrival of reinforcements.
“Helm! Helm!” the Riders shouted. “Helm is arisen and comes back to war. Helm for Theoden King!”
And with that shout the king came. His horse was white as snow, golden was his shield, and his spear was long. At his right hand was Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, behind him rode the lords of the House of Eorl the Young. Light sprang in the sky. Night departed.
“Forth Eorlingas!” With a cry and a great noise they charged. Down from the gates they roared, over the causeway they swept, and they drove through the hosts of Isengard as a wind among grass. Behind them from the Deep came the stern cries of men issuing from the caves, driving forth the enemy. Out poured all the men that were left upon the Rock. And ever the sound of blowing horns echoed in the hills.
That scene gets my blood boiling every single time I read it.
Each author has their own style. I love the ones, like Tolkien, who are able to use poetic prose, who are capable of making battle seem like a song. They make it fun to read a scene like that. Unfortunately, I do not have much poetry in my blood. When I try to do it my prose falls flat. I had to develop other skills more conducive to my personality. My fight scenes are more practically described. Where I try to change things up is to get inside my characters head before a fight, and after. I want to explore how they feel. What decisions do they make to get themselves into the fight? How do they feel about what they did once it is over? Here is a scene, from my upcoming book Mysts of Mythos, in which Egil, a young Dane, untested in battle, must help his best friend, Bjorn, in trying to rescue Bjorn’s sister.
Ducking behind the bole of a thick cedar, Egil unslung his bow and nocked an arrow. He took a breath and gave a slow exhale before stepping out, drawing the feathers to his cheek and aiming, but he hesitated, easing the tension of his string.
The vargr-rider was only twenty yards away, within range for an easy shot. It would be dead before it knew it was in danger. Murder. Hunting an animal was one thing. Killing another man, even one so strange as this, in cold blood, was entirely different. A cold sweat trickled down his back, tickling the fine hairs. His heart raced, his nostrils flared, lungs pulling in quick, shallow, breaths. Egil’s eyes blinked rapidly, his fingers slowly easing the string further.
Suddenly his breath caught and everything seemed to slow down. The commotion of Bjorn barreling through the undergrowth towards the village must have gotten the rider’s attention. It’s head snapped up and just as quickly the ruddy skinned vargr-rider raised its own bow.
Decision crystallized in his mind without hesitation. It was no longer murder. Egil had to shoot this man to save his friend’s life. The arrow clicked against the hard wooden stave of his bow. The string let out a singing crackle as he drew the feathers to his cheek once again. His breath came out in a sigh as his fingers let go the fletching. The arrow was a dark streak, arching through the air, connecting him to the rider. Something alerted the rider, perhaps the whistle of the arrow cutting through the air. It was turning just as it let loose it’s own shaft. Egil’s arrow caught the rider in the back just to the right of the spine, punching through it’s leather coat and sinking at least a hands length into it’s body. The rider fell as if it were a puppet with cut strings. The rider’s arrow, thankfully, sailed harmlessly into the trees.
For Egil this is no easy task. He’s never killed a man in cold blood up until now. His one previous conflict had been in bad light with other men shooting back at him. The heat of battle caught him up and made his decision to return fire much easier. In this case he knows that he would be killing a defenseless man, even though this enemy holds a dear friend hostage. For an experienced warrior or soldier that might be a simple choice, but for someone young and unused to killing other men, it is not so easy.
When the action comes I try to describe it with a thorough efficiency and a visceral prose. I hope you like it.
Sean Gallagher is the author of the upcoming novel, Mysts of Mythos, first book in a new series of historical fantasy. Raised in Syracuse, NY he moved to Oregon while still in high school and currently resides in Portland with his wife, Monica, and son, Rune. The Gallaghers are also the proud human friends of Blanca the dog and Thor the cat.
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