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[GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: The Band of Brothers

Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of THE WALL OF NIGHT quartet, is published in the USA and internationally. Helen has twice won a Sir Julius Vogel Award, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night in 2011. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground. To read more about Helen and her writing, click here.

Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: The Band of Brothers

by Helen Lowe

…And Crispin…[Day]…shall ne’er go by

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered –

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother…

If anyone doubts epic fantasy’s strong and enduring roots in story, this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V (the famous St Crispin’s Day speech made on the eve of Agincourt) must dispel their error. For the famous quote, “we band of brothers”, speaks to the heart of epic fantasy just as much as the quest-journey of my previous “Having Fun With…” post.

We find the “band of brothers” throughout fairytale, folklore and myth: Robin Hood and His Merry Men, King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, Penthesilea and the Amazons. The “band” ideal crosses into history as well, with the Spartan 300 at Thermopylae, the 47 ronin-and the more contemporary defence of Rorke’s Drift, which inspired Tanya Huff’s Valor’s Choice and is alluded to (as the basis for an event in the Wasp/Dragonfly war) in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series.

Myth, legend, history: no wonder the “band of brothers”, or “buddies”, lies at the heart of epic fantasy (and a great deal more contemporary genre: Star Wars, Buffy, Firefly, Babylon 5 – I rest my case.) But it is the link to the quest-journey and tales of war, from Roland and Oliver at Roncesvalles, to Blenda and the women of Småland, that make the “band” so apt to epic fantasy, with its focus on large-scale conflict and world-altering events.

Although Tolkien’s “nine companions” who set out for Mount Doom are the obvious example, Steven Eriksons’ Malazan series includes the Bridgeburners, the Bonehunters, and the “chain of dogs.” There’s also the bridgebearers in Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings – and the “band of brothers” characterizes David Gemmell’s writing: with “The Thirty” in his Drenai novels, as well as the defence of Dros Delnoch in Legend, and The King Beyond The Gate‘s friendship between Tenaka Khan and Ananais, which transcends cultural difference and traditional enmity.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s work also exemplifies use of the “Band of Brothers” motif, notably in A Song for Arbonne where the element that most defines the protagonist, Blaise, is his friendships-more even than his hatred for his father and bitterness over the betrayal of his homeland. The “band of brothers” also charts the heart of Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan, where the friendship between Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan ultimately cannot transcend traditional enmity and cultural and religious difference.

But is the “band of ‘brothers'” theme solely the preserve of male writers and male-centric stories? I am glad to answer with a resolute “no.” Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn focuses on two separate “bands of sisters”: Sheera Galernas and the title’s ladies, forming themselves into a “scared band” to retake their city from a tyrant wizard; also the mercenary, Star Hawk, and courtesan, Fawn, thrown together in their quest to retrieve an abducted companion. Amongst Robin McKinley’s heroines, Aerin and Hari both fulfil their quests with the aid of sworn companions-although these comprise more animals than humans in Aerin’s case, drawing on the fairy- and folktale origins of the “band of buddies.” And the friendship of Raederle, Lyra of Herun, and Tristan of Hed, together with Lyra’s companion guards, makes Patricia McKillip’s Heir of Sea and Fire a memorable read.

It could be said that our enduring love for “the band” is simply another escapism. But then there are those examples from history… So perhaps we all just love those high, doomed tales of sacrifice and valor… Or maybe, somewhere in the mix, we recognize that comradeship and friendship are amongst the few human qualities capable of transcending self interest. As to whether they succeed, or not-well, that’s what puts the drama in the storytelling.

6 Comments on [GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: The Band of Brothers

  1. I heard it summed up thusly:


    Two characters is a buddy story

    Three or more characters makes a quest.

    And don’t forget roleplaying game “Adventuring parties”, also bands of brothers and sisters…

  2. Where does Robin Hood and his merry men fit into this picture, or Arthur and the Round table?

    To me one thing that the band of brothers allows is the exploration of who we are.

    A big part of who we are, is how we relate to people around us.

    Another part of who we are is how we relate to the world around us.

    Having a tight knit band of different (but none the less connected) people to explore that world with, allows us to see different parts of it, and know it better

  3. Paul, As soon as I started writing this post I realised that the ‘band of brothers’ opens up so many subtopics: the ‘faithful companion’ (eg Samwise Gamgee), the ‘lovable animal companions’ (briefly alluded too, but I’ve always thought that Artoo Deetoo and See Threepio fit this one), the ‘wise guide’ (Mentor, Merlin), the lovable rogue (eg Han Solo), the warrior and the trickster (eg Thor and Loki, Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser)–many of whom also materialise in the roleplaying “party” (as they embark on their dungeon crawl–[coughs] I mean, quest–journey! 🙂 )


  4. Andrew, I rather thought Robin Hood and his merry men and Arthur and the Round table were classic examples of the “band of brothers” in terms of comradeship, pursuit of a higher ideal (eg robbing the rich to give to the poor, chivalry & defending justice), as well as standing against the odds. Do you see it differently?

    But I think the other elements you mention do characterise the way the band of brothers is often used in epic fantasy: David Gemmell’s “The Thirty”, Barbara Hambly’s “ladies of Mandrigyn”, and Steven Erikson’s “chain of dogs” are all good examples of this.

  5. I think one reason the “band of” theme appeals to people is because we all want to belive there is a group of people that “got our backs” so to speak. There are so many dynamics that can be set up within a group of people traveling together: friendship, betryal, romance

  6. Sharon, I think you’re right, we long for it to be true. But looking to some of those examples out of history, I also believe that it can be true–ie not just escapism/delusion. And I do feel is that it is important for storytelling to celebrate the best examples as well as recording the worst and all the in-betweens. 

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