The poem ‘Epitaph On An Army Of Mercenaries’ by AE Housman** is one of my favourites, and graces Snakewood as its foreword. It was an influence on the novel not so much because it happened to be about mercenaries, but because I had challenged myself to tell a story about them such that a reader might find sympathy with them, and engage with them in their attempts to right their own self-centered wrongs.
The contradiction at the heart of Housman’s poem is that, although they fought for pay, it was that very contract that underwrote their being willing to stand firm when everything around them collapsed. It makes them seem heroic but reminds us twice, notably at the end of both stanzas, that it was only for money they made a difference in that anonymous conflict’s darkest hour.
Kailen’s Twenty, the mercenary crew at the heart of Snakewood, were the best crew of them all, all elite soldiers, drudhas (my world’s version of alchemists), horse-masters, sappers, diplomats; a team that, for a price, could and did make a decisive difference in the favour of those who could pay it.
Mercenaries, as characters, are at their most interesting when that hard-bitten professional objectivity, that disengagement with the rights and wrongs of a conflict, butts up against a situation where they must choose a course of action they have a direct and personal stake in.
It’s very difficult to identify with someone who does not align with any cause. While not technically a mercenary, Han Solo, a smuggler out to make a buck, spends most of Star Wars making money out of the rebels, not giving much of a fig for their cause, until he’s guilt tripped into it. Why? Because underneath the rogue is a man with a heart, a man that knows right and wrong. In this respect he is an interesting and sympathetic protagonist because he has an arc; cynical smuggler out to make a buck turns good guy and falls in love.
In Snakewood, the two main ‘good guys’, Gant and Shale, are ex Kailen’s Twenty mercenaries still plying their trade fifteen years after the crew disbanded. Then they get a message from Kailen telling them to go into hiding because the old crew are being hunted and, so far, successfully killed. Now they have a cause, albeit a ‘debt of honour’ to Kailen, with whom they made their fortune, to seek him out and help him.
Hopefully, they have become two mercenaries you can side with, yet the fact that they let absolutely nothing stand in their way as the novel progresses illustrates their moral ambivalence to almost everyone else, something that has informed their whole adult lives. They do not burn down evil empires in Snakewood, they are merely contending with price of their former sins.
As readers we can identify with morally dubious protagonists if we can understand their moral framework as part of an internally consistent worldview. When someone ‘wrongs’ them, readers are capable of, I believe, great empathetic gymnastics regarding their retaliation. We can suspend, if you like, our own moral framework and immerse ourselves in theirs.
In that regard, mercenaries can perform a service as well as anyone else in literature. While they are atypical protagonists they can present us with dinstinctive ways of understanding human conflict, of rights and wrongs substantively different to our own. I hesitate to claim such a lofty achievement with the mercenaries of Snakewood. But in a world where professional soldiers are predominant because the magic system strongly favours those who spend their lives using it, they were a pleasurable challenge to me as a writer, in trying to create ‘good guys’ out of them.
More generally, I strongly believe atypical protagonists provide one of literature’s most important services and chief pleasures; exposing ‘humanity’ as a complex, sometimes contradictory quality, the appreciation of which is crucial to our growth as people.
Some of my favourite atypical protagonists come from some of the most capable hands there are. I urge you to read these, or in Macbeth’s case, see it:
Ned Kelly, in True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
Briony Tallis in Atonement, by Ian McEwan
The marvelous Cugel, from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books
Macbeth, by you know who.
* This piece first appeared on “RagnaBlog”, though the blog no longer appears to exist.