WTF is a Lochaber Axe?

. . . Or, Thinking Too Much About Fantasy

Today I thought I’d write something a bit different.  It’s just something that I’ve thought about a lot on and off over the years – fantasy and suspension of disbelief.  So be prepared to descend into a whirlpool of nerdy over-analysis.  Or else just click on one of the excellent blogs off to the right there.

Or just look at the cute bunny.

Right, so I assume that if you’re reading this you both made it past the bunny, and are a fantasy fan of one form or another.  Sci fi and fantasy games are what this blog is (mostly) about after all.  I’ve been a reader of fantasy and science fiction since I was a very small child, and grew up around adults who talked about mythology and Tolkien, and played D&D and wargames.  But there’s something very interesting about fantasy fiction that I’ve only slowly become aware of over the years.  It’s a very complex thing.  I’m talking about when the realism of a story starts to get so high that you start to notice how impossible the whole thing is.

OK so you could be forgiven for not quite getting what I mean.  I couldn’t think of a catchy way to put it, but hopefully it’ll all become clear as you read on.

I think two of the main things that make a work of fiction (or a game, or a setting or what-have-you) “fantasy” are that they conform to certain rules and conventions, and that they require us to suspend our disbelief more than ordinary fiction does.  The two are connected. The first, the conforming to rules, is very interesting and I’ll write about that some other time.  Today though I’m going to talk about suspension of disbelief and realism in fantasy.

Like I said, as a kid I grew up with fantasy around me so if you gave me, say, a Dragonlance book I wouldn’t bat an eyelid at any of the outrageous things in there.  As I got older though I became a more discerning reader and less tolerant of stuff that I found hard to accept within the rules the author had established.  I think that one sign of a good fantasy author is their ability to convince us that all this weird stuff could happen, in the world that they’re showing us.  Orson Scott Card once wrote that if you’re going to have magic in your story, it better be consistent in the way it works.

I think this is spot on.  The Harry Potter books are good fantasy in many ways, but the way the magic works seems totally arbitrary and thus they annoy me.  I think much of the appeal of so-called gritty fantasy like the suddenly ubiquitous Game of Thrones (oh how I want to rant about that one day) is that they allow adults to suspend their disbelief much more easily.  There are no Wizard of Oz style melting dragon men or teleportation spells in Game of Thrones.  Just penises and intrigue and sort-of-zombies.  People have become much more critical readers of fantasy as they and the genre have aged.

When we get too critical though, we notice that there are some things that no author, no matter how great, can account for.  Some things in fantasy just don’t add up, no matter what.  For example, an author who wants their adult readers to take their work seriously has a tricky decision right off the bat:  If your world is not earth, do you just go with horses, rabbits, wheat, oak trees, autumn, goats, etc, or do you invent entirely new ecosystems and animals?  If you choose the first one, your sophisticated reader is justified in asking why the hell a planet that isn’t earth has all the same animals.  If you choose the latter course, things get a whole lot weirder and clunkier and you better be a damn good writer.

Here’s another example, and one that first started to bug me a little as a teenager.  I’ve always been interested in language and linguistics.  One day I was sitting there reading my AD&D Player’s Handbook and I suddenly wondered how a Lucerne hammer could be called that in a world where there was and never would be a Switzerland. Why do peasants in Greyhawk call their polearms “guisarme-voulges” and “Bec do Corbins” when there is no such language on Oerth as French?

This exact question just struck me again when I was recently reading David Eddings’s book The Diamond Throne.  The book is great, I’m really enjoying the pace and the traditional heroism of the main characters (no grimdark anti-heroes here).  One of the guys has as his weapon of choice a Lochaber axe, and it grates on me every time one of the other characters mentions it.  Obviously there is no such place as Lochaber in Eddings’s world.

Turns out this is a Lochaber Axe. Looks pretty grim.

What is going on here?  Taken further, I might decide that none of these characters are speaking English anyway.  English is the cipher for whatever language we are pretending they’re speaking right?  So why does it matter?  When they say Lochaber axe they’re not really saying “Lochaber axe,” they’re saying whatever word in their language means what we call a Lochaber axe.

It still bugs me though.  If we assume the above, then what we have is a situation akin to when ordinary languages have to translate words.  Whatever the characters in the book are saying (pretending for a moment that they are real people somewhere) is being translated for the reader by David Eddings as “Lochaber axe.”

Usually when real languages use words from another language they go one of two ways: they translate the word into their own language using existing words, or they just borrow the word.  Japanese often does the latter – it is filled with altered English words like “chicketto” (ticket) and “ban” (van).  Chinese usually does the former.  The Chinese word for cinema is made up of two existing characters, “electricity” and “shadow”.  Basically nearly all fantasy writers go the Japanese way, which is cool, but then you end up with your fairy-tale knights from another world decapitating people with Lochaber axes.

It’s a real pickle for fantasy.  It’s the linguistic version of the natural problem I described above, of animals and plants mysteriously matching ours.  One of the main reasons I’m a big fan of Elric and Conan is that Moorcock and Howard both went to great pains to say (or at least strongly hint) that their stories are set on earth.  Tolkien also did this come to think of it. Middle Earth, the Young Kingdoms, and the Hyborian Age are all sorts of “dreamtimes” of earth to use an indigenous Australian concept. One of the things I always liked about the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy is that one look at a map tells you it’s either earth, or a parallel world very much like it, so all of those nagging questions are instantly answered.

It’s a little thing, but ultimately it makes the whole mess much easier for me to swallow.  It doesn’t bother me so much when Conan uses a gladius or a poniard, because at least I know there will one day be a Rome or France in Conan’s world.  Perhaps the gladius and poniard are evolutionary descendants of the weapons Conan uses.  It’s easier to accept that the words are just translations for my benefit.  But when a warrior on Krynn uses a rapier it bugs me.  The world is not earth, it has three magic moons and interventionist gods.  Why does it also have rabbits and rapiers?  I think I’d prefer it if the author spent a sentence or so describing how the swords of a particular nation are slender stabbing weapons and then referred to them as “(insert nation) blades” or something.  If the world is not earth I think the Chinese method of translating is better.

OK so maybe I’m being a bit picky and attacking the very bedrock of fantasy here, but shoot me, I’m a fantasy nerd.  As I said above, many authors successfully deal with these questions, so why can’t they all take the time to do it?  Also, I’m a philosopher so I like to start with the basics.  Where did this fantastical place come from and why is it like earth?  Why is it not?  In other words, what’s the cosmology?

I just think when you really start to think about fantasy, you notice strange things like this.  It’s almost as if the tension between pretending to ourselves that this stuff is real at the same time as knowing it’s totally ridiculous and illogical is what makes it fun.

Another time, I’ll talk about the other main thing I think defines fantasy: sticking to conventions.  Another contradiction, as on the face of it fantasy should be all about breaking the rules and writing whatever you like right?  No, as it turns out.

I’d be really interested to hear any readers thoughts about suspension of disbelief and things authors do that make it hard for you, or that show up this tension between realism and uh . . . knowing-it’s-all-bollocks.

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17 responses to “WTF is a Lochaber Axe?

  • saethone

    The important part of fantasy isn’t necessarily the underlying foundations of the world. You used Game of Thrones as an example. I have not read the books, only watched whats on HBO. From what I’ve seen so far, they’ve done nothing to explain “how magic works” in any way. We just witness it. Sure, the writer knows – but does it really matter to us, the reader?

    The only reason the writer even told you its a Lochaber axe is so that you can recognize the imagery more easily. In the end, the name of it is irrelevant. What matters is how it affects the story that’s unfolding around it.

    That’s the core of suspension of disbelief – otherwise the questions like you brought up (why are there bunnies and trees?) would overpower your enjoyment.

    Just extend your suspension a bit further and you’ll enjoy it more.

  • James S

    Thanks for commenting saethone. I disagree with you a bit though – to me the underlying foundations are important. The author doesn’t have to come right out and explain them, they can just show them to us, but if the reader senses that the foundations aren’t consistent then I think it absolutely matters.

    I do enjoy fantasy, a lot – I am really loving the David Eddings book with the Lochaber axe. I guess my point was just that when authors use terms that are too realistic it jolts me a bit and I remember I’m reading fantasy. My suspension of disbelief gets shaken.

  • Thor

    I admit I don’t share your level of criticism, you sir are far nerdier than I, but I do agree completely about consistency. My favorite books are the ones where the ‘ground rules’ are set and explained. This is what magic is, this is how it works and this is what’s possible, or what have you. To not do so is a crutch for an author. They can just pull whatever they want out of their ass as they need it and that irritates me.

  • James S

    Ha ha thanks, I think!

    I should make it clear that the sort of criticisms I talked about above don’t bug me THAT much, I’ve just been sitting on them for years. I couldn’t read fantasy at all if I threw away every book that didn’t explain why the world has rabbits and humans. It’s just nice when they do explain it.

    Obvious historical terms still bug me though.

  • Von

    See, I disagree. What breaks the immersion of a story, for me, is large and unnecessary infodumps about the world’s physics or history – the “as any first-year student of the Mage’s Academy knows, there are eight schools of magic…” stuff, the “as you know, your father, the king” stuff. Characters being told stuff they already know for no other reason than to provide an explanation for something that honestly didn’t necessarily need explaining. It’s bumpf. It’s padding.

    It’s one of the few things David Ferring did right, in his Konrad books; when the world’s geography is explained there, it’s to a character who genuinely doesn’t know, and it’s on a level that we need to know – here’s where we are in relation to where we’re going, and here are the borders beyond which Bad Stuff Goes Down, and here’s an incidental detail about the character doing the explaining which flags up something we’re going to find out about them later. The whole thing is over in a page or two and at no point does it feel like it’s been artificially jammed in. I also quite like characters telling stories on the road, especially stories which happen to have a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it relevance to their story, and especially especially if the author doesn’t feel obliged to point that out…

  • James S

    It’s funny you disagree with me Von, because I agree with you! I’m also not a fan of obvious plot exposition. The stories on the road thing is cool, one of the characters in the above-mentioned David Eddings book explained the (relevant) history of the world to one of the others and it seemed perfectly natural – the listener was a street urchin who had never been properly educated and the teacher was a knight who had been charged with educating him. I was impressed with how he did it.

    It’s possible to indicate to the reader the foundations of the world without coming out and saying it. Moorcock was waaay too clever to just come out and say it, even when he was young. I think the first time I remember realizing that the Young Kingdoms were an earlier age of earth was when Elric was sent forward in time to retrieve a magical artefact into an age where Law predominated (i.e. there was less magic than his own era) and he fought the shade of the Frankish hero Roland, a semi-historical figure. That was freaking awesome. It was a Planet of the Apes moment – “it was earth all along!”

    When they explain stuff via infodump is the worst (though Howard’s Hyborian Age essay is an iconic exception). When they don’t bother to explain it I can normally forgive, but if the world gets too much like earth (e.g. by using very earth-specific historical terms) then the questions get raised in my mind.

  • sho3box

    A pet gripe of mine is when rhyming translations of verse appear in fantasy stories. I of course am aware that its just a cypher and that it doesnt really matter, but the fact that “The Fall of Imbach” or whatever reads in English just like a nursery rhyme always jars me out of my disbelief suspension.

    With reference to realism becoming so high that the absurdity of the story is thrown into relief, check out the Chris Nolan Batman movies. The creators are so busy falling over themselves trying to deconstruct the character and make the whole thing credible to a modern adult cinema audience that they have forgotten that its a story about a man in his pyjamas with ears on his hat. I find those films difficult to watch because of how ludicrously jarring the whole affair is.

    The Burton movies embraced the integral absurdity of Batman and his world and are all the better for it.

    Marginally off topic I suppose, but there you go.

    • James S

      Yes! That’s exactly what I’m talking about! The new Batman is a perfect example. Fantasy is a balancing act, you can’t make it too much like reality or we realize how ridiculous the original premises are.

  • Jonathan MacLean-Lambie

    I agree although I did enjoy Eddings as a Child it remained there as a happy memory within childhood.

    Whereas Moorcock, Tolkien, and Stephen Donaldson remain solid.

    I only chanced upon your page today… As I was working the ground in our woods as per usual the Scythe had gone off, “somewhere”.

    And I started to improvise to cut back the nettles and brambles and found an old, “tool”, which was passed down from my Grandfather. I have no idea where he found it.

    It was exceptionally effective.

    Afterwards I got to thinking what is this thing and what was its actual purpose. It certainly was not designed to Slay Bramble Bushes.

    After a little investigation in to it’s design.

    About 5foot in length with a hardwood handle and tipped with an iron axe shaped head. It turned out to be a Lochaber without the Halberd hook, certainly it fits that and also the name of another poleaxe called a Bill.

    • James S

      Whoah, you actually found a lochaber axe in your yard? That could never happen in Australia. And if it did there would be a lot of unanswered questions for historians and archaeloogists…

      Welcome and thanks for commenting. I like Stephen Donaldson, he was very brave with Thomas Covenant.

      • Jonathan MacLean-Lambie

        Yay only in the past month do I seem to find others who have enjoyed Covenent – result.

        I never knew you were in Australia.

        The Lochaber was in an Old Boer War Chest that has belonged to my Paternal grandfather and had been passed along; I rescued the lot from the dump

  • Pat

    Interesting. But most fantasy doesn’t have to be consistent in a story. It’s the story itself that’s important. The heroic archetype, with his quest or trials predates the written word, and goes back to the times when stories of gods and heroes were told round a campfire. Tolkien, who was a professor of philology, could have written his work in Elvish or Westron, but how many of us could have read it? As it is, LOTR has many inconsistencies in itself, not least the economics, but its the characters and their triumphs and tragedies that enthral most readers, not the minutiae. If an author had to recreate a whole new world an describe everything in it, then there would no room for the story. 🙂

    • James S

      Yeah, I don’t want to give the impression that I care so much about minutiae that I don’t enjoy the story – I do. It’s just interesting the sorts of things that really pull you out of your suspension of disbelief. For me it’s real-world place names.

      And once something shakes me like that, then I start wondering where the hell this world is anyway and why does it have rabbits and all the rest. But I absolutely agree, there needs to be a balance between explanation and the actual story. Fantasy is a strange thing. In stories set on earth (even, say, the Iliad) there’s no need to explain the world. It’s earth, even though there are demi-gods and prophecies and all the rest.

      Thanks for commenting by the way!

  • sugogoblog

    I stumbled on this one trying to find out what a Lochaber axe was, rereading the Eddings books for the however many dozenth time, and I thought it was interesting! That said I think if you start to go down the route of why are there rabbits in this fantasy world, you sort of have to go down the path into ‘And also why are there humans’ for precisely the same reasons, and once you inevitably have to make allowances for that, the same door lets in all the other species as well.

    A while ago I was reading the Trudi Canavan books, and she’s very keen on renaming everything. I have to admit, it might not be that she’s got the nessecary skill to pull it off, but it really irritated me. You end up in this situation where you kind of go ‘Well, it’s got four legs and it eats grass and they use them to pull carts so it’s probably an ox, unless it’s a bison or a horse’. The fact that you’ve rebranded horses as Yeevils is never going to be particularily relevant to the story, so I think there’s a certain amount of justification in going ‘Horse is a horse, we all know what horse means, moving on to the story’

    • James S

      @sugogoblog, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. And an insightful comment it was too!

      You’re absolutely right, authors need to account for humans too if they’re going to worry about where rabbits come from. Using familiar words is mildly problematic for suspension of disbelief, but the otehr way, renaming everything, is almost always more trouble than it’s worth!

      Do the Trudi Canavan books explain the world’s relationship to our world at all? Or is it just presented as a totally alien story in an alien universe? If so, I think that risks disconnecting the reader’s interest.

      I’ve just been reading the John Carter books and Edgar Rice Burroughs does a good job of renaming things, including people. He’s able to do this though by having Carter draw comparisons with the Martian’s earthly analogues, so it works.

      • sugogoblog

        As far as I recall, it’s not in any way related to our world – It’s a human populated world but there’s no connection to earth that I can remember.

        Thinking about this a little more, I think one of the things Eddings might have going for him is the fact that he always has actively participating Gods in all of his series, and at least two of his series (The Belgariad/Mallorean and the Elenium/Tamuli) have forces at play that frequently have a hand in creating multiple worlds and populating them (The Prophecies in the former and the Bhelliom in the latter), which doesn’t make Lochaber any more of a place in any given fantasy world, I suppose, but at least means that it’s more believable to me at least that there’d be the same animals and so on on any given world.

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