A large proportion of fantasy novels involve warfare, and the reasons for those wars starting depend largely on the genre — but they’re usually quite straightforward.
If it’s traditional high fantasy, there’s a war because some Evil Overlord wants to conquer and oppress the world, usually for no very clear reason, and the opposing side is steadfastly determined to resist. If it’s grimdark, on the other hand, the purpose of war is simply because everyone wants power, or even just an excuse to kill and loot.
Now, none of those reasons are totally implausible. Wars are sometimes fought defensively against pure aggression, while power and bloodlust are certainly often motives. But, in reality, the causes of wars are much more complex and multi-layered — and the reasons why people think they’re going to war aren’t always the actual reasons.
Helen of Troy and the Hellespont
One of the first known fictional wars in human literature was described by Homer, nearly three thousand years ago, as having been the Greeks and the Trojans. Now, stories of the Trojan War may well have had their source in a real war in the late Bronze Age, but what Homer described was essentially fictional. And it was started by the abduction of a woman.
Three thousand years of literary critics and historians have found this implausible — no-one would have gone to war over a woman. The real cause (assuming there actually was a war at all) must, they say, have been a dispute over control of the trade routes through the Hellespont (now called the Dardanelles) which gave access to the lucrative markets of the Black Sea. Troy was situated on the Hellespont, thus controlling access, and the Greeks wanted to take it from them.
Now, the Hellespont theory is almost certainly true (assuming there was a war), but that doesn’t actually rule out the abduction of Helen as a cause. Trade is all very well, but it’s not going to inspire your soldiers to go and fight a war far from home for ten years.
On the other hand: the vicious barbarians carried off my wife — not just “a women”, after all, but the Queen of Sparta. If they’re willing to sink that low, will your wife be next? Or your daughter? Who’s going to come and make sure they never get the chance?
Now, that’s what inspires people to make sacrifices and go to war.
Crusading and Ears
The same pattern occurs time and again through history. The Crusades, for instance, were again as much about securing trade routes as about religious zeal, but it was the mobilisation of Christendom by a succession of Popes that sent generations of kings, barons, knights and commoners to the Holy Land. Well, that and the promise of total pardon by God for whatever you did on crusade, however heinous — which explains why the crusaders behaved so appallingly.
Perhaps the most bizarrely named war in history was fought between Britain and Spain from 1739 to 1748. Known in Britain as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, it was fought primarily over competing trade interests in the Caribbean, as well as similar competition in colonising North America.
As far as the 18th century “man in the street” was concerned, however, it was actually fought because, several years earlier, the Spanish had cut off the ear of a captured British sea-captain called Robert Jenkins. The government, and more especially the South Sea Company, deliberately played up the incident to fan resentment against the Spanish — and got the war they wanted.
Gavrilo Princip and Railway Timetables
The claim that a war couldn’t have been caused by the abduction of one woman seems unconvincing in an age when a world war was caused by the assassination of one man. On 28th June 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the cause of independence and unity for the Southern Slavs under the leadership of Serbia.
Although there was no evidence that Serbia had been behind the assassination, Austria held them responsible and declared war. Russia then declared war in support of Serbia and Germany in support of Austria — making the bizarre opening move of invading Belgium, which resulted in the UK declaring war in support of Belgium.
The reality was that the Great Powers of Europe had been preparing for war for many years. The essential issues were, as usual, competition for resources and for influence on the world stage. Attempts to reach agreement, such as the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 which carved up Africa (without actually consulting any Africans, naturally), had run out, and everyone was ready for war.
So why invade Belgium? Well, as the historian AJP Taylor has pointed out, the state-of-the-art way of mobilising troops at the time was by rail, and that meant mobilisation could only take place via pre-planned infrastructure. The German plan for war, which they’d presumed would be against France, involved coming through Belgium, so that was their move, dragging Britain, France and ultimately the US into what had been a central European war.
Wars Start in Complex Ways
Hopefully, the few examples I’ve given will illustrate the complexity that can exist in the causes of wars. The underlying reasons are usually economic, although issues like religion, national pride and the desire for Lebensraum may play a part. But there’s also bound to be a cause for public consumption — something enough to fire up ordinary people and make them willing to go off and fight a war they probably won’t personally benefit from.
So, if you’re creating a war in a fantasy novel, should you imitate history? Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend creating anything as bizarre and complex as the First World War — no-one would believe it was plausible. And you certainly might not want to subject your readers to a long treatise on local economics.
There’s nothing wrong with a good, old-fashioned war between good and evil in a fantasy novel. I enjoy reading them — and I’ve even written a few myself.
On the other hand, your war might feel a little more realistic if you drop a few hints about what else might lie behind it. After all, even Dark Lords intent on extinguishing all light from the world must need food and resources to rule their empires.