High Fantasy Nomads: Let’s Fix This Silliness

Edit, February 22 2021: Since this article is getting a lot of hits today, reread it. Removed several instances of ableist and colonialist language. I’m not so sure about the ethics of editing that out, which is why I didn’t do it sooner. I’ve decided I care more about ensuring new readers don’t get hurt by it then enshrining my authorial transparency, so… just know I used to be a person who wrote ableist, colonials remarks without a second thought. Ugh. I was not a great person in 2018.

Outsiders, I understand. You come to our hidden land expecting wonders and terrors, warriors made peerless by their hardship, the wisdom of wasteland sages.

You have been misled.

Pop quiz: what’s the best way to learn things in a world which predates the telegraph, let alone the Internet? Is it:
1. Sit on your ass in a distant wasteland brooding over how inferior the immoral, pampered outlanders are, or
2. Go out into the world, meet people, go places, have your beliefs about the world challenged and be forced to grow by eating your own words a few too many times

This is one of those articles, readers. An article tearing down an idea in fantasy that goes unexamined largely because it’s been around so long most other authors have forgotten to rip it apart. Well, I’m–(Edit November 11 2020): the rest of this line was just silly. It has been expurgated for the common good.

But having decided to reread this piece because it’s one of the few articles on my blog that consistently gets views and I was curious to see why, I must say I like the rest of this piece quite well even now–it’s held up far better than most of my work from 2018! (Edits end)

Let me state it bluntly before we go in-depth: isolating yourself from the rest of the human species does not give you moral purity. It doesn’t give you knowledge of some special sacred “dark history” that everyone else forgets. It certainly doesn’t let your people become the best warriors in existence when, as Sun Tzu said:

“When you know the enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear in a thousand battles.” How are you to know anything when you condition yourself to treat all knowledge from outside your own culture as a threat?

Before I choose my target for today, though, we need to explore a little-grasped concept from Earth history: when and why nomads have been militarily dominant or even relevant. Because the truth is there are few major instances. Let’s go right to the most iconic:

-The Huns. Best known for sacking Rome under Attila. Despite all the devastation they caused, they ultimately collapsed as an empire by 460, and were never again relevant.

-The Mongols. Their performance mirrors that of the Huns on a far larger scale, and Chingghis Khan’s legacy owes something to his enemies’ collective incompetence. Even as he overtook ever-larger portions of China, its competing dynasties refused to join together against him. Indeed, infighting and disagreement frequently prevented the Mongols’ enemies from mounting an effective defense. The Kingdom of Hungary nearly beat them back for a time until a rogue faction of nobles betrayed the king in the middle of the campaign.

This isn’t to undermine what the Mongols accomplished–they were fearsome warriors under one of the most ruthless, skillful conquerors the world has ever known, a man who consistently rewarded competence and loyalty, punished resistance and betrayal, took the best and bravest of his enemies as his own warriors, and meticulously adopted his enemies’ fields of expertise, broadening the Mongols’ might with each new conquest.

Remember all of that, we’ll be coming back to it.

There’s a vital linking factor between the Huns, the Mongols, the Parthians (look ’em up, lot of ground to cover so I can’t summarize for you. Sorry guys.) and other famed historical nomad-warriors. HORSES. RIDICULOUS AMOUNTS OF HORSES, ROBERT JORDAN! Sorry, sorry. I did say this is incredibly obvious, though. I froth at the mouth when otherwise capable authors miss incredibly obvious, vital information.

The Huns and Mongols had horses, and used them for everything from hunting to warfare to food. Hungry? Slit your pony’s flank and have a quick horseblood smoothie! In fact, hunting the grasslands which both groups called home formed the basis of Hun and Mongol tactics: coordinating with other riders over long distances and shooting ahorse at extreme range, redirecting or misdirecting the target so that one or more riders can pick it off when the time is right.

Even the Mongols, at the height of their power, weren’t always willing to go toe-to-toe with–for example–European knights because they knew how risky that was. Instead, they used the knights’ impetuous nature and charge-fetishism to separate them from the infantry, then large groups of Mongols would pick off smaller forces of knights once their horses were blown. It’s the same trick Saladin used to throw the Crusaders out of the Holy Land. It’s the same trick the Parthians used against Publius Licinius Crassus, one of the few significant defeats the Romans suffered in the Empire’s prime.

We’ll come back to the Romans soon, but here’s a little more: the Huns and the Mongols did have heavy cavalry. The Mongols, in particular, had some pretty impressive lamellar for their heavy cavalry. They also had lances and other long spears which, while maybe not on a level with those of European knights, meant they weren’t at a completely unconquerable reach disadvantage.

(Reach matters in combat or else the Greeks wouldn’t have been able to develop a style of warfare based entirely around marching straight forward with pikes. And guns would never have caught on).

Fundamentally, the Huns and Mongols adapted, because life on the steppes forced them to do that. They had enough experience raiding against sedentary, city-bound cultures to know what to do and what not to do. To anticipate many of the weapons and tactics they’d have to overcome. More even than that, however, their lifestyles gave them an overwhelming maneuver advantage that conventional armies just couldn’t match. It doesn’t matter how lethal my heavy infantry are if the Mongols can just ride around us and go sack the city we marched out to defend, does it?

A final layer of planning before I commence my assault: the Romans, Mongols, Medieval and Renaissance Europeans, Japan, Ottomans, Indians, China–it doesn’t matter which of these you pick! All wore armor, all used weapons that could either pierce or circumvent armor, and all had more than one type of troops! Knights might fight afoot or ahorse and were supplemented by men-at-arms and skirmishers and peasant levies. Each of these groups had multiple classes of warrior to fill certain combat roles because warfare’s history is written in the blood of arrogant blowhards who refused to adapt.

Let’s turn, now, to the Archetypal Fantasy Nomad (AFN, pronounced “Afen” and spelled accordingly from this point forward). Full disclosure: I was going to shred the Aiel from The Wheel of Time here, but I’ve elected not to because I don’t want people getting the idea this is just about the Aiel. I think you’ll all find I lose little as far as specificity.

Image result for desert
The Namib desert. The Afen likely live somewhere quite similar, or else in a featureless grassland with no visible agriculture.

So: the Afen people live in a region of the world improbably separated from all the others. The Afen all have the same basic outfit regardless of sex and gender, though they may have a few specialized variants for different professions. The Afen’s home region is, to all appearances, so barren of meaningful resources both minerally or agriculturally as to appear uninhabitable by significant numbers of people. Despite this, the Afen will be exactly as numerous as their role in the plot requires them to be.

The Afen will never lack for anything despite going out of their way to avoid trading with industrialized societies, doing so only rarely and with extremely snide attitudes which definitely wouldn’t cause rate hikes or in themselves provide pretexts for invasion. Despite their dependence on a tiny handful of trusted merchants, no outside power will ever coopt these merchants or use them for leverage against the Afen.

The Afen will practice an obscure style of combat which flouts the rules of conventional fantasy. Despite being comprised of clearly-observable movements which take place before observers in 3-dimensional space, no one will ever reverse-engineer this style, which is always the most effective means of fighting in existence and may ignore physical laws about inertia and conservation of energy. The first Afen encountered will be breathtakingly average by their standards, but appear superhuman to the outsiders, who will be in awe of the Afen’s fighting ability. Later you will be astonished to learn how much more skilled all the Afen’s true masters are.

Despite the Afen’s extreme pragmatism in most other regards, their style of combat will be highly flashy and unorthodox, which in this world will work to their advantage instead of ending with them getting stabbed suddenly in vulnerable places as would happen in 100% of fights from our world. The Afen all use exactly the same weapon, for they will only ever have one iconic weapon which they use slavishly except suddenly remembering that bows exist during some (not all) major battles.

Despite the fact that no one weapon is optimal in all battles and theirs will inevitably be a relatively small weapon clearly suited only to use as a sidearm, the Afen will never end up massacred because (in a totally non-specific example with no popular inspiration), say, a four-foot spear of which only two or three feet can be used effectively in combat due to body mechanics is not a match for a twelve-foot or longer lance of which ten feet can be used effectively in combat and also that is an armored knight on an armored horse and steel spears don’t pierce steel plate, sir.

You will not notice any of this, however, because the Afen are wonderfully open about sex, gender and nudity, and if you are the protagonist or one of the protagonist’s friends then at least one of the hottest who suits your sexual preferences will proposition you when the time is right. Despite this, you will never be made to feel uncomfortable by LGBTQ members of the Afen approaching you, because “progressive” just means “promiscuous.”

(Edit Nov. 11 2020): To be clear, if promiscuity is how you’re progressive, I support you. I’d have to be a pretty big hypocrite to do otherwise. Anyway, I find this paragraph funnier the older I get. It says much about certain male fantasy authors that the idea of women enjoying sex and seeking it out for themselves is so outlandish it needs to be relegated to the Afen to highlight their exotic nomad ways. Like, yeah, unless they’re asexual, women also like to have sex. Wonder if there’s someone closer to home you could’ve listened to in order to learn this forbidden lore? (Edits end)

Afen craftsmanship will significantly outstrip that in other regions of the world despite a complete lack of cultural interchange. In fact, the Afen will have suffered absolutely none of the myriad problems which plague historical isolationist societies. Their technology will be at least on par with the rest of the world if not in fact superior, except certain technologies which the author has arbitrarily dubbed too industrialized and therefore bad. The absence of these technologies will “purify” the Afen in some abstract way.

The Afen will never suffer an obliterative outbreak of diseases on first contact with the rest of the world despite sometimes having missed thousands of years of collective immunity. They will always completely avoid any plagues going around despite cramming their entire population into the handful of walled communities they move between, because the thing about plagues is that they’re quite fair and only target city-dwellers. Despite a conspicuous lack of stable, broadly-available food sources, the Afen will always have enough to eat and share their weird, exotic foods with the protagonist.

The Afen will always be the coolest people ever and beat anyone from the outside world in a fight, except the protagonist, who will learn their ways and come to earn their respect, though it may be grudging and tinged with xenophobia or sexism. The Afen will never come under fire for these things despite the fact that the author immediately pillories any non-Afen character who expresses them, even in a much-reduced form.

The Afen will never use horses despite being constantly on the move and traveling long distances in a world where most outsiders feel no desire to help them. In fact, they will likely have a clear or implied disdain for horses and the people who ride them, suggesting that riding a horse somehow makes a person “soft,” or “pampered.”

Under no circumstances will the Afen ultimately turn out to be miserable blowhards, nor will their paranoid avoidance of armor lead to them being diced to ribbons by people from armor-positive cultures, who will suddenly get far worse at fighting in their presence than they have clearly been elsewhere in the narrative. Even if the Afen diet is clearly insufficient to sustain their level of activity, the Afen will either be larger or faster, and hardier, than outsiders.

Tropes enough for you?

You remember that whole thing about the Mongols and Huns living in grasslands? Despite the lack of direct human nutrition, they lived in environments that let them develop huge numbers of herd animals to convert that grass into human-grade nutrition. As far as protein, nutritious fat and calcium–three things vital to a physique-building diet since, you know, they’re primary components of muscles and bones–they had plenty. And that’s the vital difference here: the Mongols and Huns lived hard lives, but they lived hard lives in an environment that provided them the nutrition they needed to toughen up and develop their endurance.

Seriously, just look at this! Look at this horse country! This is Mongolia, if that wasn’t clear.

More than this, the Mongols and Huns were not invincible. They often seemed that way, but they weren’t. They suffered setbacks, and big ones, setbacks severe enough the Mongols might’ve been stopped at a hundred turns but for Chingghis. Chingghis, who always respected the strength of his enemies even while ruthlessly destroying those who wouldn’t bow. Chingghis, who commended a doggish enemy lord to his sons as a model of bravery when the man rode his horse off a cliff rather than surrender. Chingghis, who melded all his conquered enemies into the Mongol Empire.

Chingghis, whose descendants were unworthy of him and threw away all his triumphs by the year 1300.

Most fantasy nomads are bland, blithe hypocrites. They monologue constantly about the ignorance of outsiders while knowing nothing of the outside. They complain about the “softness” of those same outsiders while being afraid to leave a single small area. They frequently have high-minded ideas about mentorship which at best boil down to wasting everybody’s time with meaningless busywork. A worst, they’re literally abusive to people who put themselves in subordinate power relationships to the Afen out of complete good faith.

One especially jarring example: as much as I loved Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingslayer Chronicles so far, Kvothe’s Adem teacher is a pretentious asshat. I know that the Adem’s core actually have fixed settlements, but then again, most Archetypal Fantasy Nomads play pretty fast and loose with the meaning of the term “nomad” to begin with. Did you know that nomads are naturally supposed to be herders?

(Editorial notes added November 11 2020, delivered in the spirit of a doppelsoldner hefting her zweihänder and about to charge a pike wall as part of the forlorn hope so she has zero incentive to hold back her true feelings): Even at the time of this article, ‘liked’ would’ve been more accurate. Keep in mind, however, that this was back when I thought I might still get traditionally published (ffffft) and the soft-power dynamics of the industry made me wary of voicing my true opinions. Here are my true opinions: Kingslayer Chronicles is fine. I may or may not read the third book when it comes out, if it comes out. As far as primary influences on my own work, The Wheel of Time ended up having far more staying power. I stand by everything else I wrote here, though.

And Mr. Rothfuss? Sir, I’m sorry your instructor hurt you, but that’s just a bad instructor. Please don’t write these ideas into your books. They teach people some pretty abhorrent lessons about what constitutes reasonable behavior from martial arts instructors, and lead to the propagation of bullshido. (Edits End)

Consider: A student in martial arts asks a well-meaning question about the application of a technique. The correct approach is not to start applying that technique to the student without restraint despite being in a sparring context and bitterly throw out some BS about “hurrdurr outsiders arrogance blarghy-blee.”

The correct approach is, “Well, in a context where your opponent refuses to yield, you will be forced to break their arm with this hold, but of course I am your teacher and a mature adult capable of explaining this distinction with words. After all, you’re just trying to learn, and as a warrior I am keenly aware that quelling your critical thinking will paralyze your ability to analyze and respond effectively in a fight, likely getting you killed, which as your teacher it is my first priority to prevent.”

I’m a martial artist, guys, remember? Not amazing, but decent and getting better. Any teacher who needs to use violence or pain to make a point in a cooperative context is unworthy of studying, full stop.

While I’m dissecting that dysfunctional relationship: a student having a boner for their instructor is not a reason to stop the lesson. It’s definitely not a reason to actually have sex with that student, cementing the expectation that sex will happen during training. Instead, it’s the perfect opportunity to politely but resolutely push on.

Yes, that is distracting, isn’t it? Makes it remarkably hard to focus? Focus anyway! This is martial arts, you actual horny teenager! It’s life or death! If you can’t practice technique properly just because you’re aroused, you think you’ll use it right when people are actually trying to kill you and you’re flooded with adrenaline, when fear rattles your soul?

(Edits, Nov. 11 2020): I actually still stand by this. This is coming from late-2020 North, who dissolves into a dysfunctional blob of pure libido whenever her boyfriend offers her a single ounce of affirmation. Coming from the sluttiest of sluts–you know my hands are typing, and that’s unfortunate when they could be tending to a nice, hard, throbbing–ahem, I’ll further add that the power dynamics of teacher-student sex are extremely unbalanced. I’ll cater to a lot of kinks in my erotica, but that’s one I’m never going to touch. Teach your students, don’t fuck your students. If you find yourself continually wanting to fuck your students, then stop teaching. Okay? Okay. (Edits end)

In general, can we as fantasy writers stop having our teachers dish out haughty moral statements and cultural tidbits at the expense of what they’re supposed to be teaching? Karin making sap-eyes at Weymer and him at her doesn’t mean that I should excuse them to go sort that out because, after all, the Black Havens have always revered the romantic bonds between members of the warstock above all things. This may indeed be true, and in fact how this much more fortunate alt-universe version of myself met his spouse and co-instructor, but I’m here to teach them the art of combat, not give the reader a feel-good statement about gender norms and sexual freedom.

So this means I, as their instructor, grin maliciously and order them into full-contact sparring–any hits they pull, I’ll administer twice over! “After all,” I laugh, “you might face anyone on the battlefield!”

(Edits Nov. 11 2020): Ha, “his”. Right, North. That’s why you got jealous whenever you saw a girl doing things as a girl. Fates and hellfire, I am not a smart trans woman. I probably would’ve realized I’m a girl sooner if I did a little more of the kind of multi-faceted exploration I advised against here. Rest holds true with a caveat–sometimes moral statements and cultural tidbits are part and parcel of the lesson being taught.

Just make sure the moral tangent and cultural exploration actually tie back into the lesson, instead of coming from and returning to nowhere. Such as the fact that I went on a haughty moral tangent about cultural norms while trying to teach the reader of this article about something else. Remember how I used to mention snippets of my worldbuilding with no context to illustrate points in unrelated articles? Irony’s a glorious thing, no? (Edits end)

Now, since I mentioned pretension: one of the main problems with high-fantasy nomads is that they’re pretentious. Historical nomads have no such pretenses. When your whole life is organized around pure survival and constant struggle, you throw away everything that’s not necessary.

And if Chingghis fucking Khan could have respect for people who didn’t do what he wanted, no nomad you ever write has an excuse to be an asshat. Not to say they won’t be–you just need to acknowledge that asshattery is what’s afoot, and not some weird “because I said so” philosophical point.

Beyond this, I can’t state clearly enough that the Mongols under Chingghis adapted and assimilated all the strengths from their enemies. The monolithic torrent of horsemen we’ve been led to envision formed the core of Chingghis’ conquests, yes–but they didn’t do it alone. The Mongols would never have achieved so much by stubbornly clinging to the same weapons, the same tactics, and the same set thinking forever without changing a thing.

That’s not strength–it’s idiocy. It’s the very brand of brainless dogmatism for which authors continually lambaste their idea of historical warriors, a dogmatism which, ironically, no real historical warriors espoused. The Mongols’ enemies were never incapable of adapting–they just didn’t adapt as fast as the Mongols did! AFNs are fundamentally distinguished not because the author has written any coherent reason for them to be distinguished, but because the author says they’re distinguished.

There’s one last point I have to address: the tendency among every fantasy author to single-mindedly devote their culture-scribing efforts to their nomads. I don’t have as much to say about this one because it’s a pure writing fault, not a research topic. I’m not saying you should underwrite the nomad culture, but they’re not the only culture on the planet and the others deserve more of your time.

(Edit, Nov. 11 2020): “every fantasy author who uses the Afen”. Otherwise stands true. (Edits end)

To crib from my own work: I can write more and more stuff for the nomads, or I can add a rude gesture among the culture of Germanic longsword duelists which consists of pretending to wipe the insult-target’s blood from an invisible longsword. This gesture also comes out more than a little phallic-suggestive–bonus! And, uh, my world also has a culture of Germanic longsword duelists. Those guys exist.

There are nomads too. Perhaps I’ll visit them at some point, and if so they will be rigorously planned-out and function within the world. Until then, nobody’s going to talk about them much and they certainly won’t have mythical status. They’re nomads! Nomads are obscure!

I know of only a single group of nomads in fantasy who deserve what they achieve, and they are George R.R. Martin’s Dothraki. You want a fantasy series I’m not bursting with criticisms about? It’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Sure, I can and do nitpick it from time to time, but when I nitpick A Song of Ice and Fire, I do it because it’s fully deserving of its accolades and I can think of no worthier foe as a writer. Why learn by eviscerating the okay when I can press steel against the best?

And probably get my ass kicked, but as every incarnation of the Afen could stand to learn, the only warriors who have never done that are the ones who never became skilled at all.

(Edits Nov. 11 2020): Martin now ranks pretty low in my estimation, but I’ve written an entire article about that in Gothic prose which you can read Here if you care to. He peaked rather early and is left with no relevance since, now that the genre’s largely left behind the tropes he was deconstructing, A Song of Ice and Fire has nothing of its own to add to the genre. Maybe should’ve considered that you need to add something new to replace what you destroy, you obsolescent grease-boy.

He’s also a shit to up-and-coming authors with far more interesting stories than his own. No need for fire nor freeze; just let him rot. The Dothraki are still good, though. (Edits End)

Hey? You remember how the Dothraki actually lost some battles historically, that they’re not invincible, just terrifying? You remember how George clearly specified how they live and provide for themselves, and what their style of warfare is and why it works? You remember how that style of warfare works within the world and has clear drawbacks, as demonstrated when Ser Jorah wins a fight purely because he has armor?

Okay, admittedly, as a HEMA practitioner, a skilled knight with an arming sword (which are actually astonishingly agile) should be able to match the speed of a Dothraki arakh without too much trouble, and the grappling and hand-to-hand advantages of plate (ever punched something while wearing a gauntlet? I imagine godhood feels only slightly better) would combine to make that fight a lot more lopsided than currently written, but still. Dothraki are internally consistent and quite well-executed. Imitate them. No more under-armored pedestrians with mystic wushu fighting skills.

Because, uh, wushu is Chinese stagefighting. It is not good for use in actual fights. Using wushu in actual fights will get you curbstomped or outright killed.

(Edits, Nov. 11 2020): I’d like to expand on this last bit, and on several fronts. First, if you want to write a book that uses flashy over-the-top moves, please do! Just make sure it’s the kind of story where be flashy and over-the-top martial arts makes sense.

As for the assertion I made that ‘wushu is Chinese stagefighting’, that’s not technically correct. There’s way too much playing into this to cover as an edit to a tangentially-related piece. Suffice to say that given how wushu as a martial art is inextricable from the nationalist mythos constructed by the Chinese government for propaganda purposes, with such results as the horrible mistreatment of Xu Xiaodong–let’s just say my feelings on this matter are pretty complicated.

I’m forced to confess that I find it very hard to look at anything wushu-related without distrust. And, given its flashiness and the above propaganda ties, I find it hard to fault 2018 North for thinking it was only intended to be stagefighting. Whether it succeeds in its intentions to be otherwise… that’s best left for a different article entirely. (Edits End)

You can have warrior nomads in your writing. In fact, in a properly-realized world, you should: planets are big and at least some of the cultures on them should be nomads. If you want your nomads to be powerful and threatening, go ahead! Take notes from Chingghis, make sure they earn every ounce of power. But stop fixing the numbers. Stop handwaving away thousands of years of military history and martial arts principles to make gods out of ordinary, clearly disadvantaged humans. It’s just not good writing.

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