Medieval battles in fiction
January 16, 2011 6:07 PM   Subscribe

StabStabTwistKillStabFilter: Recommend some works of fiction that deal with ancient/medieval battles and the tactics, strategies and tools thereof.

I've recently enjoyed Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy The Warlord Chronicles, and particularly liked learning about the martial aspects of the Dark Ages setting: the arms and armour of the time, the all-important tactic of the shieldwall, the best method of sword-gutting a Saxon, the unpopularity of the bow, the pros and cons of a heavy cavalry charge, etc.

Aside from all of Cornwell's other books which I'll be reading over the next 13 or so years, what other works of fiction are there that delve into the nitty-gritty military matters of the ancient battlefield?

I'm interested primarily in Western/European early medieval warfare, though would also enjoy learning the ugly truths about pretty much any historical period or place in which men regularly chopped, slashed, impaled or crushed parts of other men.

BTW I'm all set to delve into the wealth of non-fiction materials such as the Osprey Men-At-Arms series, and am familiar with the present day efforts to codify medieval martial practices. Specifically I'm after works of fiction that have characters engaged in battles, and perhaps reveal what's going through a warrior's head whilst doing so. The more historically accurate the better - though I won't object at all to any fantasy-type recommendations with the occasional black dragon vs. cave troll, should such works exist.

posted by Kandarp Von Bontee to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I wouldn't recommend it as a novel, per se (the writing is a bit iffy, the characterisation bland, and the humour genuinely bad. It's still readable, however), but Ash, by Mary Gentle - though ostensibly fantasy - is actually a very detailed exposition about medieval warfare, a topic I believe she has a phd in.

The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon is apparently also quite detailed (I've not read it).

Books that I would recommend as novels and have lots and lots of (just!) medieval combat - though it's by no means the exclusive content - are Dorothy Dunnett's historical novels (respectively known as the Lymond Chronicles and The House of Niccolo ). Fuck these are just terrific, terrific books, and not only will you get an understanding of different types of warfare, but you'll be exposed to amazing scenes from some of the most notable battles of the era - the siege of Malta, for example. Great stuff. Lymond books are 16thC and Niccolo books are 15thC).
posted by smoke at 6:36 PM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh also, you should have a look at Guy Gavriel Kay. He's books aren't exclusively military, but his research is very high and any military etc information he includes is likely to very accurate (fyi, his books are technically fantasy, but really what he does is write parrallel historical fiction, e.g Byzantine Empire without known historical leaders like Justinian and made-up ones instead. Little to no magic etc.).
posted by smoke at 6:39 PM on January 16, 2011

louis l'amour has a novel, the walking drum, that takes place around 1200 ad. it does have some battle descriptions, though not anything historically significant. takes place in in europe and the near east.
posted by lester at 6:45 PM on January 16, 2011

Seconding Smoke's suggestion of Ash: A Secret History - it displays a sharp and descriptive knowledge of medieval warfare.
posted by Paragon at 6:56 PM on January 16, 2011
posted by jpziller at 7:06 PM on January 16, 2011

You can't get more historically accurate than the Sagas, novels written in the medieval era by men in the middle of a civil war in Iceland. The Sturlunga Saga is a contemporary account of said civil war. The Kings' Sagas generally feature their share of battles. The two best are usually considered to be Sverris Saga and Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson (a chieftain and prime mover in the civil war) who recounts, as well as a lot of other battles, the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The Sagas of the Icelanders, which deal with 10th and 11th century events in Iceland, also have their share of battles. Njáls saga has as its centerpiece an attack on a farm which is set ablaze. Egils saga, probably by the aforementioned Snorri Sturluson, follows the career of poet, viking and general nutbar Egill Skallagrímsson, and takes in, among other things, the Battle of Brunanburh.
posted by Kattullus at 7:17 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

No idea how accurate they are in terms of weapons/fighting, but I've thoroughly enjoyed the intense and grisly fighting in Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold and in particular his upcoming The Heroes, which is literally All Fighting All The Time from the POVs of multiple combatants. Technically fantasy insofar as the countries are made up and some psychic seers run around, but that's about it.

I also remember lots of hand-to-hand combat in the Belgariad and especially the Elenium series by David Eddings, though those are much more fantasy, and again, no idea how accurate they are. (Though I do recall mockery of pretty-but-useless armor.)

Requisite TVTropes linkage: Weapons & Wielding, Military & Warfare, Combat, I Like Swords.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:24 PM on January 16, 2011

Various of the works of Alfred Duggan should be up your street (in tight formation).
posted by Abiezer at 8:42 PM on January 16, 2011

Paksenarrion tends towards accuracy in the military training aspect more than the actual weapons work (Moon was a Marine officer.) I'd be really leery of the Belgariad's accuracy for, well, everything, although it's charming.

Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror has a lot of the social and economic sides of medieval warfare, and I found it immensely readable as well. The realities of maintaining expensive arms and armor, armsmen, warhorses and the like, and coping with lost tournaments or having to pay ransoms when you lose a battle shaped medieval Europe to a great degree. (Warning - reading this may make bad medieval fantasy settings grate like dull steel on bone.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:49 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

...would also enjoy learning the ugly truths about pretty much any historical period or place in which men regularly chopped, slashed, impaled or crushed parts of other men.

You might like Steven Pressfield's books set in the ancient Greek era; I haven't read them but have seen glowing reviews for his military accuracy and soldiers-eye views. Here's Publishers Weekly on Tides of War:

The voice of Polemides is ideal, for he relates this astounding, historically accurate tale with the hot, sweaty hack-and-stab awareness of an armored infantryman, the blood lust of a paid killer and the wisdom of a keen observer of complex and deadly Greek politics. Pressfield is a masterful storyteller, especially adept in his graphic and embracing descriptions of the land and naval battles...

I'd start with his first, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, of which PW said, "The terrifying spectacle of classical infantry battle becomes vividly clear in his epic treatment of the Greeks' magnificent last stand against the invading Persians."
posted by mediareport at 9:02 PM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Smoke recommend the Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon, but I'd actually recommend the centuries previous prequel, Surrender None: the Legacy of Gird. I actually came across it before the Pasennarion books, and liked it a lot better. It deals (at least in the later part of the book) with a peasant luprising against oppressive nobility, from the ground up starting with rebel bands, moving up with logistics and armament, to tactics and then to long term strategy. Yes it has fantasy elements, but they aren't that important.
posted by gryftir at 5:21 AM on January 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Due to a total loss of combustion-based energy, folks are plunged back to the Dark Ages in S.M. Stirling's Change Series. He gives incredibly detailed descriptions of the weaponry, the tactics, the battles, and the psychological machinations of the participants. Of course, everything in the books is given that much detail, but I suppose you could just skip to the fighting parts.
posted by dirtmonster at 6:23 AM on January 17, 2011

I'd absolutely second Steven Pressfield, especially Gates of Fire. Very detailed description of equipment, tactics and lifestyle, and the book was unbelievably engrossing -- I actually got annoyed that I had to put it down to pee. I didn't enjoy Tides of War quite as much -- it has a broader focus in both time and scope (it goes through many years of war, and spends a lot of time on Athenian politics) and seemed to wander a bit more.
posted by bjrubble at 8:21 AM on January 17, 2011

Another vote for Gates of Fire. And iwhen you want a break, read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court to see what happens when an enterprising New Englander takes some late 19-th Century technology up against the flower of England's chivalrous past. Despite the opressive weight of Twain's reputation, there's probably a good bit to interest you in there, though the end is a bit dark.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:04 PM on January 18, 2011

In the novel 'Timeline' by Michael Crichton, modern historians travel back in time to France during the Hundred Years War and observe life there, including a battle or two.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:25 PM on September 20, 2011

« Older Help with a javascript callback   |   Netflix won't play audio over Bluetooth. Any... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.