Humour vs Fanaticism and Honour Culture in Fantasy Fiction


Ultimately, all fanatics are the enemies of knowledge as part of the public good.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks,  got me thinking about similar episodes in history and then in Fantasy and Fiction. Aside from their real world implications, which while very interesting are beyond the scope of this blog, it demonstrates a stark pattern of behaviour among fanatics.

Killing a person for mocking one’s beliefs is profoundly ridiculous, and all the more appalling because of that. Most people, no matter how faithful or fierce will not engage in such a barbaric act. The use of the word barbaric is deliberate in this case: honour killings in the name of faith, religious or otherwise, are an ugly artifact of the past. If they are allowed to continue and spread then we will return to the barbarity of totalitarianism or even the dark ages.

Faith killings, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks, are a fanatics attempt to uphold the honour of the system that they have dedicated themselves to. They see any affront to their beliefs as something that needs to be avenged. Often this mindset seems strange to rational people, who can have their most deeply held beliefs insulted and challenged on a daily basis without resorting to violence. However, the fanatic is acting from an irrational impulse, usually fear. They fear that if mockery strips the object of their belief of its dignity then all of their work and all of their devotion will be for nothing. A fanatic puts all of his stock in that one belief, and if that belief is devalued in the marketplace of ideas then so is he. The fanatic will not admit to this fear, event to himself, but it is rooted at the core of his devotion. Someone who is secure in their beliefs does not need to kill for them, and will not unless they are directly threatened, which is never the case when mockery and insults are the supposed threat.

In the arena of fiction, fanatics make for interesting villains. The believe that they are right, and do not question the object of their faith. Within the confines of their system, the fanatic is often more moral than the non-fanatic (although this is not always the case). They are not one dimensional, despite how they may seem on the news. They will even deny that they are fanatics, often in a well reasoned fashion, up to a point. (Perhaps I am a fanatical believer in free speech and democracy? would I know?)

Regardless, fanaticism of any sort is an excellent source of villainy for more Epic forms fantasy fiction. A relatively harmless action, like a cartoon, can set off a fanatical reaction where honour can only be restored through bloodshed. In other posts I have detailed types of fanaticism, from religious to economic. It is my belief that Fanaticism can carry over to belief in any system. Pastoral fantasy tends to use fanatics in the same way that it uses orcs — disposable fodder for action scenes and as a contrast to make the hero look good. (see below for grimdark) However, good Fantasy thrives on exploring the beliefs and systems beyond those of the protagonist. In modern fantasy we prefer villains that have some nuance and revel in the justifications for their actions.

Here are a few examples of interesting Fanatics that could appear in Fantasy Fiction

  • The Rathamen of the Kingdom of Yeer believe in keeping their bodies pure. Contact with outsiders is forbidden until they are ritually purified, and touching a Rathaman is considered a deadly insult. Fanatical Rathamen blame outsiders for all illness and will kill them without provocation at the slightest sign of disease. They also believe that illness among their own kind is a sign of weakness and that the infirm and ill should be shunned. This all stems from a belief that arose during a plague long ago.
  • The Dwarves of Hunglelund believe in trade. Trade is both good and natural. They will use their armies to ensure that trade happens freely and unfettered, no matter what the cost. Aggressively opening up new markets is for the betterment of all!
  • The Scrolls of Tharn the Prophet state that the mineral pools of Tradir are sacred and can cure all the ills of the faithful. Unfortunately overuse has polluted the pools. Sadly however, the prophet stated that the pools are sacred, which means to question the sanctity of the pools is to say that the Prophet is fallible. The illnesses cause by this cycle are creating an imbalance in the religion.

More interesting, however, is that the protagonist need not be someone we would normally find heroic when confronting fanaticism. Political cartoonists are not especially admired in normal society, and are certainly far below policemen, soldiers, and first responders in normal estimations of courage. Yet, when fanaticism is at work, and even a cartoon is considered a grave insult that must be avenged then the creators and critics of culture are often front and centre in the conflict. This can make for excellent fiction. Here are a few examples:

  • The God-King is considered infallible and perfect. A simple cobbler discovers that his feet are different sizes, which is impossible if he is divine, setting off a chain of events that shakes the foundations of the empire.
  • A scientists using a primitive microscope discovers that the pools of Tharn contain nasty little critters that are causing illness and corruption. Using his knowledge, he successfully treats the ill. This creates a schism as some claim that he does evil work, while others begin to question the pools, and still others seek to purify the people by infecting them with the corruption from the pools.
  • The Book of Ibb is the only true book. All other books, even those not written by the faithful of Ibb, are full of false knowledge. BURN THE LIBRARIES! (Sorry Alexandria)

Obviously these are simplistic concepts, but they are examples seeds that can be grown into fully fleshed out conflicts for an interesting series. The best fanatical beliefs showcase the unusual nature of the world that the author has created or emphasize the qualities of those who oppose them.

The fanatic can also be a hero, however, particularly in Grimdark fiction. I am minded here of the noble space marines, who are shielded from the shit storm of corruption in the 40k universe by their faith in humanity and the Imeperium. Of course, grimdark takes a dim view of heroes to begin with 😉


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