Bestselling fantasy author Steven Erikson just wrote an essay on The Malazan Book of the Fallen's most divisive character among readers, Karsa Orlong. It's a very interesting read that should appeal to all Malazan fans out there! Here's a teaser:
Consider this an essay, then. The problem posed by Karsa and how readers perceive him will, for me, find its answers from a range of angles; from the Fantasy genre itself, to anthropology, history, cultural identity and its features, to the structure of the series (and the novel in question) and, eventually, to the expectations that fantasy readers bring to a fantasy novel. You may note something of an ellipse in that list, but that’s how I think so bear with me. Historically within the genre the role of the ‘barbarians’ has roughly split into two morally laden strains. On the one hand they are the ‘dark horde’ threatening civilization; while on the other they are the savage made noble by the absence of civilization. In the matter of Karsa Orlong, we can for the moment disregard the former and concentrate instead on the noble savage trope—such barbarians are purer of spirit, unsullied and uncorrupt; while their justice may be rough, it is still just. One could call it the ‘play-ground wish-fulfillment’ motif, where prowess is bound to fairness and punishment is always righteous. The obvious, almost definitive example of this is R.E.Howard’s Conan, but we can take a more fundamental approach and consider this ‘barbarian’ trope as representing the ‘other,’ but a cleaned-up version intended to invite sympathy. In this invitation there must be a subtle compact between creator and reader, and to list its details can be rather enlightening, so here goes. We are not the ‘other,’ and this barbarian’s world is therefore exotic, even as it harkens back to a pre-civilized, Edenic proximity. The barbarian’s world is a harsh one, a true struggle for existence, but this struggle is what hones proper virtues (‘proper’ in the sense of readily agreeable virtues, such as loyalty, courage, integrity, and the value of honest labour). Against this we need an opposing force; in this case ‘civilization,’ characterized by deceit, decadence, conspiracy, and consort with evil forces including tyranny: civilization represents, therefore, the loss of freedom (with slavery the most direct manifestation of that, brutally represented in chains and other forms of imprisonment). In essence, then, we as readers are invited to the side of the ‘other,’ the one standing in opposition to civilization. Yet… we readers are ‘civilized.’ We are, in fact, the decadent products of a culture that has not only accepted the loss of freedom, but in fact codifies that loss to ease our discomfort (taxes, wage-slavery, etc). In this manner, we are offered the ‘escapist’ gift of Fantasy; but implicit in this is the notion that a) we need to escape; and b) that civilization is, at its core, evil.
So, how does all this relate to Karsa Orlong? Well, as has been noted, there was something of the need to prove that I could sustain a single narrative going on (or so I recall, the sense of being pissed off about something is always short-lived and usually ephemeral, although the answer to it can prove far-reaching, as is certainly the case with Karsa); but obviously more was going on. I wanted to address the fantasy trope of the ‘barbarian’ (from the north, no less, and isn’t it curious how so many heroic barbarians come down from the north?), but do so in recognition of demonstrable truths about warrior-based societies, as expressed in that intractable sense of superiority and its arrogant expression; and in recognizing the implicit ‘invitation’ to the reader (into a civilization-rejecting, civilization-hating barbarian ‘hero’), I wanted to, via a very close and therefore truncated point of view, make it damned uncomfortable in its ‘reality,’ and thereby comment on what I saw (and see) as a fundamentally nihilistic fantasy trope: the pure and noble barbarian. Because, whether recognized or not, that fantasy barbarian hero constitutes a rather backhanded attack on the very civilization that produces people with the leisure time to read (and read escapist literature at that). Within the scope of Karsa’s culture, he holds to his code of integrity and honour, even if they are initially friable in their assumptions (but then, so are all of our assumptions about ‘us’ and about the ‘other’). We observe the details of that culture, revealed bit by bit—with plenty of hints as to its flawed beliefs—and with each detail, we as readers are pushed further away from our own civilized sensibilities.
Escapism is seductive, and what it might reveal about us is not always pleasant on reflection: it comes down to the flavours we prefer, the paths we find most inviting to our more fundamental belief systems—whether self-articulated or not, and that alone is enough to make any thinking person shiver. Karsa is all of that stripped bare; and in turn he infuriates, shocks, and on occasion makes the jaw drop in disbelief. But he is also the reality of the ‘barbaric’ and so represents an overt rejection of the romanticized, fantasized barbarian trope. Some people don’t like that. Fair enough.
The Malazan Book does not offer readers the escapism into any romantic notions of barbarism, or into a world of pure, white knight Good, and pure, black tyrant Evil. In fact, probably the boldest claim to escapist fantasy my series makes, is in offering up a world where we all have power, no matter our station, no matter our flaws and weaknesses—we all have power. I don’t know about you, but I’ll escape into that world every chance I can.