In the heat, people get sweaty.
I’ve been reading Ordination by Daniel M. Ford (a Twitter buddy) and very smart dude. It’s his debut novel (followed by Stillbright and an upcoming third in his “Paladin” trilogy”), a fantasy story with some D&D and Tolkien-esque trappings that, so far, is very good. I’m loving it, especially enjoying the protagonist, a knight in full plate armor, relying on a hammer as his primary weapon, acknowledging he’s better with that versus a traditional knight’s weapon, a sword, mostly because it comes down to efficiency and ease of use.
Also, he sweats. A lot. It’s summer, and Allystaire, our hero, sweats in that full suit of armor and gambeson padding (basically a coat/shirt made up of stuffed quilt material) underneath, and Ford brings it up to emphasize the strain and lack of comfort that comes from wearing metal body armor. While it’s a protective shell that does turn him into a veritable walking tank, it’s A) not impenetrable because it’s meant to be flexible and wearable and B) a pain in the ass to put on, take off, and wear while sweat trickles down your body because you’re basically strapped into a microwave that adds 20 to 40 pounds to your overall weight.
I know the SCA and LARPers/cosplayers can debate the pro’s and cons of the flexibility and historical accuracy of certain types of armor until the fucking cows come home in the field they’re all playing dress-up in (I kid, sorta)
It’s a little thing, really, but, it’s true. It reminds me of this scene from TV’s Game of Thrones, about the realization you can’t get out of armor to piss. I know that the root of the show (and the books, which I have mixed feelings about) is in adding a level of realism to fantasy worlds and storytelling, but that tends to get lost, I think at times, in the show’s overall drama and “dark fantasy” elements (which is fine, as a TV I really like it). Still, Jorah Mormont talking about being bolted into his armor for most of a day and that his main thought was how he realized he couldn’t get out of it alone is a funny moment. This, more than anything in the books or the shows or the culture around both, encapsulates to me what that whole series is about. Realistically, medieval wear and battle sucked, they were full of screaming and dying and people either running around in terror or plodding up and down a field for hours at a time, wishing they could piss while dust choked out the sky.
I’ve been diving back into genre more and more for pleasure reading, (including a re-read of William Gibson’s work, but that’s another story), thinking more and more about the limitations but also the flexibility of fantasy (in stories, games, etc) to range from completely bonkers-out there to almost boringly realistic. The visuals of fantasy as a kid, to me, were almost rigidly-antiquated, pulling straight out of my history books, as well as influenced by the outlandish looks on the covers of the books I read. Some of them, like early editions of Tolkien’s books or the versions of CS Lewis’s Narnia books I had as a kid, would have spot illustrations within that helped you create a visualization, just as the King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood stories I read did (which would be more historical fiction to me, but I’m digressing). Then of course the illustrations from Magic: The Gathering cards and card packs, Warhammer promotional imagery came into play as well, which helped too.
That was where i got my mental images from. Those years, the mid-1990’s to early 2000’s were when I was fully immersing myself into genre, are, arguably, a bit of a flux for fantasy. Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate II (2000) were popular games at the time, though the visual differences in character designs between the two is a little shocking, and then of course there was 2001’s first LOTR movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Baldur’s Gate II and LOTR were definitely a bit of a visual shift at that point in in fantasy, changing the overall aesthetic of the “field,” so to speak. The armor was drab and everyone, even people who technically could afford better-looking or brighter stuff, didn’t wear it.
Everyone’s drab, everyone’s in variations of the same three outfits regardless of social status, with little regard for “fashion,” a thing that really would have been a concern. Raymond Feist, for example touches on this in Talon of the Silver Hawk when the titular character talks about a style popular amongst men in a particular kingdom, a glorified arming jacket cut to be purposely worn half-on, half-off, supposedly so that you can draw a sword easier. It’s such a dumb-sounding thing that no matter how many times I’ve read that book I still can’t completely picture it. The LOTR films also arguably influenced a lot of other little things since then, from the looks of protagonists (I’m gonna say it, no one ever really does “elves” right, though Tolkien’s Galadriel is arguably the closest in her perpetual near-Lovecraftian otherworldliness) to the way we depict “bad guys” and otherworldly/nonhuman villains as having distantly non-Western or non-human (but still weirdly vague) “tribal” looks, with rough armor, body painting and armor, and piercings. Their exoticism is always painted as outward signs of their villainy, but that exoticism is smoothed-over, giving it a bit of a generic feel.
The new vibe is one that puts a lot of effort into making characters, visually at least, seem “badass.” I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the leaps and bounds that art seems to have made and with art for fantasy no longer just relying on traditional medieval/historical recommendations and inspirations (which, to be fair, can be stifling and a little racist). Overall fantasy fiction (as a genre) is one that is trying really hard to change and show a level of interesting growth, but in doing so sometimes it feels like it’s continuing this odd tradition of not really going anywhere at all. Heroes are still somehow magically pulling swords from over their shoulders in one fluid move, everyone’s a sniper with a bow and arrow, and no one ever needs to take a piss in the middle of a battle but can’t because they’re basically bolted into their metal pants.
Fantasy as a genre’s always struggled to avoid falling into the traps of genre (catering to the same slowly-shrinking fanbase, not unique to fantasy alone but a rampant nerd/subculture thing in general) and, overall, I really think that it’s overall done a good job in terms of making itself both appealing to traditional or long-term fans as well as having ins for people who want to jump in. I’ll rag on everyone having tribal tattoos or the same-looking “exotic” armor on the cover of something, but in a way if that’s the trade-off to get more people and more different types of people into fantasy, then it’s a trade-off I feel like is OK to make.
Complaining about the covers seems small and in the long run, like I just said it’s a not that big a deal compared to the strides in terms of representation with characters, story, and readership. Also I recognize how much of this is also tied into my own nostalgic attachment to fantasy fiction as a kid who was absorbed by so much of it, nose buried in pages to escape.
Sometimes I think we still lose sight of the actual realism in our more realistic but also visually-interesting (arguably?) fantasy. You sweat in armor.