The Problem of Karsa Orlong by Steven Erikson

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.

Follow this link to read the entire essay.

6 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

Ugh, his essays are just like his novels... 100 words used when 10 would do.

Unknown said...

Just wrote? You mean april 2013 :)

Ripper Madness said...

The problem with Karsa is...we never get to the end of his story. Erikson kept throwing hints and teases, but it was obvious that in the later novels that he didn't know what to do with him in the over all arch of the series. Or just got bored with him. It was so infuriating for me!

In fantasy literature there are lots of characters that have always stuck out and stick in one's mind, but then there is that one particular bad-ass/barbarian/head smasher that makes you stand up and cheer!

For me there has been three: Of course Conan is the icon, the iconic barbarian. Growing up a fantasy fan one either wanted to be Frodo on this oh so serious quest with a silly ring, Flick and Shea and elf stones and swords, oh my! Now no matter how much I loved the Covenant books, I never wanted to BE Thomas Covenant. And then there are those who wanted to be a butt-kicking head decapitating demon fighting barbarian from some cold place where men are men and women are naked, in the snow, with frost giants. So one wanted to be Conan. Give me Conan any day.

Two more come to my mind that stand out above the rest. For me after Conan there is Karsa Orlong. Just his 'introduction' alone in the first 200 pages of HOUSE OF CHAINS makes me stand up and cheer!(SPOILER: Yes yes I know its not really his introduction but you don't realize who he is until later). To me Karsa is not only my favorite 'barbarian/noble savage', he is my favorite character in fantastic, fantasy, whatever you want to call it, fiction. I've never understood the controversy about him (actually I never realized there was one until the first time I read Erikson's essay) or why Karsa was seemingly abandoned by the author(s) to character limbo. Now I did not read ASSAIL by Esslemont because BLOOD & BONE was just so god awful I couldn't force myself to finish even after two tries. I was done with Esslemont (and Stonewielder was such a great book, I don't get it). So I don't know if Karsa made an appearance or not.

Oh, number three? The Bloody Nine of course, Logen Ninefingers.

I love Erikson's Malazan, frustrated with Esslemont's contributions, but Karsa Orlong isn't a problem for me.

I had read the essay before when I had first come across it. I had forgotten about it. Cool post!

machinery said...

ripper madness : the problem with karsa story not ending, is not karsa, it's the author. who ruined hiw own books by inflated ego. imo, of course.

Anonymous said...

There's 3 more Karsa books on the way (The Toblakai Trilogy), this essay is over a year and a half old.

Unknown said...

I absolutely love the scene in Toll the Hounds when Karsa is about to face the white furred hounds and these two Toblakai girls are suddenly there flinging their javelelins at the attacking creature. And after that, when Karsa walks off they just follow behind him without uttering a word. For me the prospect of the adventures that would befall those three in the lands of the Malazan world is beyond enticing...