Denied The Path In Front Of Them: Bastards in 90s Epic Fantasy

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The fantasy genre is well known for it’s liking for characters whose relationship to their parent is in some way unconventional. The orphan is the most common, particularly when linked to the chosen one archetype, and there are a good number of changelings too, but also popular at times is the illegitimate child. In the mid to late 90s, we saw a spate of authors writing books that had a particular type of bastard very central to them – raised knowing they were the son of an important man but unable to follow them, and left to carve out their own role. This essay will examine the commonalities between three particular characters; Bane from David Gemmell’s Midnight Falcon, Erik von Darkmoor from Raymond E. Feist’s Serpentwar Saga, and Jon Snow from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, all of whom made their first appearance in the five year span from 1994 to 1999.

So if you don’t want spoilers for those books and series, click away now. G’wan, scram.

While I fill space to avoid accidental spoilerage, I will briefly mention two examples I considered including but didn’t add. Fitz from Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, the first book of which was released dead in this period, seems an obvious inclusion. However, Fitz’s upbringing and path feel different, and sadly and more pertinently, I never got on well enough with those books to talk intelligently of them here. A broader study would include them though. Talen from David Eddings’ Elenium and Tamuli (first seen 1989) is almost a subversion of this archetype before it took off, but he is not central enough to merit inclusion. Please let me know if you can think of any other good examples of central fantasy characters who are bastards with parents known from the beginning, particularly from this time period.

The commonalities between the three characters are that they grow up knowing who their father is but are barred from following in his footsteps as a man of power due to their birth; they make a self-destructive choice that results in them undertaking a difficult and dangerous journey; they receive mentorship from an older male role-model, as well as advice from a woman of power and a woman of romantic interest; they acquire power akin but different to their father’s; they are given a chance to take their father’s role but turn it down. However while the rough arc is very similar, there are differences within it that makes each story distinctive.

And since we’re past the spoiler thing, yes, Jon is technically no bastard. But his belief and seeming status means he fits in very well.

These differences start with how they know their father and circumstances of birth at the start of the book. Jon lives with his father (Eddard) and his paternity has been acknowledged. He has been given a noble’s training. However, he has no idea who his mother is, as Eddard has sworn not to speak of her. Erik and Bane however have both been raised by their mothers, and never spoken to their fathers. Erik’s father (the Baron) has never denied the paternity, allowing Erik to claim the family name, but he has done nothing else. Erik has been raised as a smith’s apprentice. Curiously, Bane is the grandson of a smith, although there’s no evidence he’s learnt the family trade. His father, the king Connavar, has only spoke two words to him, breaking custom to avoid Bane’s attempts to speak to him. Bane initially believes his father raped his mother; Erik has no idea how he was conceived.

The line of difference extends to their self-destructive choice. Bane has already made his before the book starts, killing two men in a fight after the death of his mother. While he could have stood trial and cleared his name, he instead elected to string along his hunters, in what other characters deduce to be a suicidal move. A friend bids him to go to the great city of Stone to keep her son safe, and Bane agrees. Erik kills his half-brother, the Baron’s heir, after he rapes Erik’s foster-sister. Erik and his best friend, Roo, run for their lives in the belief they will never be found innocent. By contrast, Jon hurts nobody save a practice pell, but asks to be allowed to join the much looked down upon Night’s Watch. The Night’s Watch will be Jon’s journey; Erik will be press-ganged into a “dirty dozen” style unit; and Bane will become a gladiator.

We can already see a very strong similarity between Bane’s and Erik’s journey, something that becomes stronger if you consider the friend they travel with – Banouin for Bane, Roo for Erik – are both children of people associated with trade, whose childhood has been blighted by the early death of a parent, who lack the physical power their companion has, and who are seen as selfish. Jon’s journey north to the wall is spent with Tyrion Lannister, who if you switch the word trade with wealth is also described here, but he has less of an impact on Jon’s story. Even so, the level of similarity on small details is remarkable. The big details in which Jon are different seems linked; Jon has had a father, Jon is less destructive. That is a reading that is based more on common stereotype than explicit words from the author, and Gemmell and Feist note that Bane’s and Erik’s fathers had dangerous tempers too. However, we know that destructive rage runs in Jon’s paternal family too. In any case, the idea is easy to read and not explicitly disputed.

Jon’s journey, in short form, is that he is mentored by Lord Mormont and Qhorin Halfhand; he ranges beyond the wall, where he meets a lover, Ygritte, and runs with his supposed enemies of the Wildings; he is offered a chance to take his father’s title by various including the priestess Melisandre, but refuses to become Commander of the Watch; when killed and resurrected by Melisandre, he leaves the watch, becomes Dany’s love, and eventually kills her before going into exile north of the wall with the Wildings.

Erik’s in short form is that he joins the army due to magical influence from the sorceress, Miranda, where he is mentored by Sergeant de Longeville and Captain Calis, and takes part in a dangerous mission to run with the enemy to gain intelligence. He is promoted, meets a lover in Kitty who he marries, and when offered the chance to be Baron, says he is too busy to be one. He spends his life in government service, even when it means divorce.

Bane’s is that he finds love with Pia, and nearly dies trying to save her; he is rescued by the goddess Morrigu; he becomes a gladiator to seek revenge; he is mentored by the gladiator Rage, in a period living among his people’s enemies; when he finds out Pia is alive after all, he uses an Imperial favour to save her and goes home, where he uses his wealth to become a chieftain; at the last, he is united with his father in a great battle, and while he pretends to be Connavar to win the battle, he relinquishes the kingship and rides off to find Pia (although it is implied in later books he might have returned).

While the order and tone can be very different, the basic events are remarkably similar for no apparent reason beyond life experiences, the outlook of the times, and writerly convention (i.e. all the arcs hold a certain similarity to the hero’s journey). There is little reason to suspect plagiarism between Feist and Martin given they would have been writing at similar times, nor that they were close enough to share ideas. There is also no suspicion of such closeness between Gemmell and the other two and while the time gap would allow for plagiarism, there’s no reason to think that Gemmell, who has talked about his fatherless childhood and dedicated the book to a teacher of his, had any need to plagiarise here. It should be noted that Feist took the name of his adoptive stepfather at an early age, suggesting perhaps a degree of autobiographical experience to not knowing one’s birth-father well too. No such thing is recorded about Martin, but this line from wiki suggests he knew the feeling of being deprived from his inheritance: “His mother’s family had once been wealthy, owning a successful construction business, but lost it all in the Great Depression, something Martin was reminded about every day when he passed what used to be his family’s dock and house. It made him feel that even if they were poor, they came from greatness that had been taken away from them.”

Ultimately this feeling of knowing there was something they could have had and being able to see it but never live it is what makes this type of character different. It has less commercial appeal because it doesn’t tap into that sense of “what could be waiting for me” as well as the orphan, the chosen one does. But there is an appeal in a character who is disadvantaged, an underdog, but still has that air of “what if greatness is waiting”. They fit the shift in fantasy away from the idealistic battles of good vs evil that dominated bookshelves in the 80s to the bleaker worldview that would emerge with the grimdark current. That we can find three authors who came to the independent decision to use an archetype in this way at this particular time shows how the shift was an evolving thing, rather than a sudden change.

All three also tell us something about the series as a whole. Erik’s decision to dedicate his entire life to his country and the service of arms – he even denies having ever being married in a later book – is placed in contrast with his friend Roo, who goes into commerce and raises a family. Both can be seen as a reaffirmation of traditional American values and the possibility for those at the bottom to rise to the top, something that fits a number of other characters in the series and the Kingdom of the Isles’ more than passing similarity to Feist’s country. However, given how much of the series is given over to the extended exploits of two extended families, it seems passing off that Erik’s wife just disappeared, and that Roo’s vast mercantile holdings never became anything.

If Feist’s use of the illegitimate underdog can be seen as a reaffirmation of the USA, Jon Snow’s arc and that of Westeros as a whole seems far critical of power structures and great nationwide cultures that contain many of the others. Jon has to sacrifice his lovers twice to protect Westeros, once from an outsider but the second time for its rightful monarch. The book ends with him leaving his service to the seven kingdoms – no longer seven – and its borders. If Erik has found a happy place that accepts him his kingdom’s military, Jon has decidedly not. Instead, Jon has lived out the ideals Eddard Stark has gifted him. Erik has left behind his bastardy. Jon, despite learning he is no bastard at all, never does, no matter the cost.

As for Bane? He walks a third path. He is only intermittently in public service, being very concerned with his own concerns. If anything he grows more withdrawn from society as the book goes on and he becomes more confident in who he is, creating his own rather than rejoining the tribe. Erik and Jon try to find places in wider society. Bane believes he only needs the people who believe in him around it. It speaks of a certain level of emotional maturity, as well as a worldview deeply interested in balancing individualism and collectivism. Bane steps up to save people when required, but he has no interest in a long term service to anything but himself and those who believe in him.

Three similar beginnings, three similar journeys, three different expressions of how to live when denied the road we believe we should be on.

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