Sellswords

I’m waiting for my paperback copy of Mamelukes to arrive, sometime in May, so I can finish reading Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries series. I began reading these books in the 80s. I think I’ve waited about long enough. Sitting here and waiting I have mercenaries on the mind, given the premise of that series: human mercenaries sent off-planet to fight an alien conflict. (That’s not an entirely novel concept, now that I think about it.)

So, I’m thinking about mercenaries. It seems de rigueur for the barbarian hero to serve as a mercenary at various points in his vagabond, blood-soaked career. And why not? What better way for a writer to get his hero into conflict? Hero needs cash, mercenary army needs strong sword arms. A match made in Valhalla.

Evidence, Ken? Or are you just blowing smoke?

Excellent question, imaginary reader. Consider the granddaddy barbarian, Robert E. Howard’s Conan. How many times did he serve as a mercenary? That would be a fun research project, an excuse to re-read the stories again. (Probably fewer than my memory suggests.) But I wouldn’t make deadline if I did so. So, let’s throw out a single example: Beyond the Black River. Conan isn’t serving as a regular Aquilonian soldier. He’s a hired auxiliary, a sellsword, scouting for pay. And it gets him into the thick of things.

Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane finds mercenary work an excellent way to reach positions of power and manipulate circumstances to what he thinks is his advantage. He’s had plenty of time to learn on the job.

As I recall, certain of Zelazny’s Amberites spent quality time as mercenaries, as well as serving in standing armies. Moorcock’s Elric and Moonglum are often soldiers of fortune. Fletcher Pratt’s The Well of the Unicorn prominently features mercenary companies. The mercenary company is itself the focus of Glen Cook’s The Black Company. And, of course, more recently, companies of sellswords are significant players in George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Ramsey Campbell’s Ryre is a mercenary, though he’s usually in between wars, fighting some supernatural horror or other. 

The condottiero and the sellsword are useful narrative figures. No politics need necessarily drive the story. The mercenary isn’t fighting for a country or a cause. The conflict itself is the story, not the reasons for the conflict. There is often a presumed amorality attached to the sellsword, thus there is little need to establish right or wrong between the belligerents, and the author can get directly to the action. Time can be spent on individual qualms or internal disputes, rather than on geo-political or social issues. It’s a good setup for a writer of swords-and-sorcery. I’ve used it myself.

No doubt readers of this web log can think of many more examples. Are there some outstanding examples you can think of? There could well be one I haven’t read yet.