Friday, 9 May 2014

Peasants


So, this week's blog is devoted to the most misunderstood, unrepresented and prevalent member of any Fantasy writer's world: The Peasant. 

The dictionary defines a Peasant as: A poor smallholder or agricultural labourer of low social status. Or as a casual method of insulting your mother-in-law: An ignorant, rude or unsophisticated person: 'That is a civilized drink, you peasant."

That was the actual quote given and it made me laugh quite a lot. 

You know the format by now. Buckle in, strap down and assume the crash position...or sit back and scroll down. Whichever takes your fancy.


Who are the Peasants?
Bloody good question that. Peasants appear all over the place. Your average dim-witted Hero and his entourage of slack jawed hangers-on and light fingered opportunists can't seem to move six inches without stumbling over a Peasant or ten.

They are the unheard of (though sadly not un-smelled) masses of Fantasonia. The average folk, the common people, the inhabitants, the populus, the great unwashed, the gawking mob, slopmongers, the uncaring crowd! 

People! 

When a fantasy writer uses the word Peasant they are using a not-so-secret shorthand that means "people". Just average (or possibly stupider than average) people who try to get on with their lives and often don't contribute a lot to any given story.

They are found in peaceful kingdoms and evil realms alike. They work the fields, fill armies, get killed by armies, starve as their crops are taken away or just fail... And occasionally they give the protagonist and incumbent Wizard something to care about, if only in a remote and aloof way.

Ok, so what do they do?
Weren't you reading that last sentence? 

Peasants are the grease that makes Fantasonia go round. Without Peasants everything pretty much grinds to a halt, as will be illustrated in the following examples.

EXAMPLE 1
Gudguff the Wizard and his stalwart gimp/prophesied Hero rode through golden fields of wheat. They argued back and forth about the meaning of their quest. Quite literally. Ran Dom McGuffin, the chosen hero, didn't understand what they were doing and was insistent they were going to his mum's for dinner. Gudguff was tired of trying to convince the witless prat otherwise. 

To the humble slopmongers working the fields, the conversation was both lofty beyond their comprehension and endlessly attractive for reasons they couldn't express. They stared and gave out the obligatory "Ooh" and "Ahh" whenever Ran's sword shone in the light, he breathed in and especially when his horse let out an earth-shattering fart.

EXAMPLE 2
Gudguff the Wizard and his stalwart gimp/prophesied Hero did not ride through golden fields of wheat because there weren't any. Ran Dom McGuffin had drawn breath for about a week before dying of starvation along with his Hero mother and father who were out of business having no-one to save due to the lack of Peasants. Gudguff had in fact gone into business making professional nests for the giant eagles who were the only way to get any food. It was also a good way to stop them from eating him. 

Sorebum the Dark Lord reigned over an utterly vast stretch of bugger-all and spent a lot of his time trying to teach his orcs chess. Except for once a month when they spent the week avoiding the local Dragon who took great delight in burning the bollocks off of the countryside for no reason they could make sense of.

The point I was just about making there, is that without Peasants, no Fantasy world could survive. Peasants are the people who clear away the forests (over time) and replace them with fields of future food/pestilential shit (Example 1). Peasants are the ones who suffer under Dark Lords and inspire the Hero/Wizard to do something about the spikey-headed bastard at the top (Example 2).

In addition Peasants often serve as Hero-Incubators, protecting and nourishing the Proto-Hero, providing him/her with gritty backstory and slave labour that conditions him/her to perfection. Thus the Proto-Hero is ready for the day some wandering bearded git decides to take him/her on an adventure which is ostensibly in the name of the local Peasantry but will likely not yield them any concrete benefit (assuming any of them survive). 

Be you a Dark Lord, Noble King or Mildly Incompetent Baron, a Peasant workforce is a must. 

The benefits of a large workforce include: Vast tax rewards. Food! Comely wenches/lads/food (for the vampiric lords and ladies). Characterful interactions at every turn. Comic relief. Target practice. Untrained masses to pad out an army. Mobs. Worshippers. The list goes on...a bit.

Ah, ok, so Peasants are useful. How do I recognise one in order to add it to my collection?
Well, if you already have a collection you should know this...but go on then.

The average Peasant can be located and identified thanks to three instantly identifiable characteristics:

1. Aversion to eye contact
Peasants will not make eye contact with anyone perceived to be their social better. When addressed directly by a Hero, Wizard, Noble or even another Peasant, they will look to the ground and mumble an incoherent answer. Peasants are the product of hundreds of years of their social betters selectively slaughtering anyone who looks like they have a shred of intelligence or a spine. Such survival instincts run deep. Having said that, a persuasive Hero can whip them up into a dangerous mob, thanks to their shared heritage and his/her stumbling attempts at rhetoric.

2. Toil
Peasants unlike townsfolk, merchants and slaves, do not work. Instead they have access to a special form of labour known as Toil(TM). Toiling(TM) is much like work and labour but has neither the half decent wage nor regular doses of pain to incite the poor shite involved in it to perform any task with anything other than extreme reluctance. Toil(TM), as the UK Conservative Party well know, is a self-replicating series of border-line pointless tasks. For example, shovelling mud from one corner of a field to another, a.k.a. Monging Slop. 

3. Stench
A Peasant in full reek is quite a thing. Long days and nights of Toil(TM) in the Dark Lord's frilly knicker factory produce an odour that is four parts body sweat, three parts manure and three parts cabbage (which is more than enough to drown out the others combined). It has been theorised that the stench is a form of self-defence mechanism that keeps the minions of the local Dark Lord at bay most of the time, thus preventing the Peasantry from being overly abused by any but the most zealous enforcers of evil.

Riiight...So, now that I know what they look and smell like...what do I do with my collection?
Once you have your Peasants you can do all sorts of things with them. Popular historical accounts include such entertainments as:

  • Bake the chronically foreshortened into a piecrust as a joke and surprise your chums! 
  • Make them dance for your delight!
  • Make them work for the promise of a wage that never materializes because you've spent it on cleaning out your duck house or having your moat dredged (Conservatives again I'm afraid).
  • Dress them in ridiculous costumes and laugh!
  • Hunt them through the woods for sport! To really liven things up, why not give one of them a crossbow and a single bolt, to give the poor little fucker an illusion of hope.
  • Target practice! Exactly what you think it is!
  • Re-decorate! Use dismembered limbs to give your Doomfort a foreboding atmosphere! Multiple torsos impaled mouth to arse on a six foot stake are an excellent boundary marker!
  • Make them fawn! Arrange some flimsy pretense for a party in your honour and have your Peasantry cheer and wave their stunted limbs in a crude mockery of a celebratory dance!
  • Give them holidays! Watch them sigh with relief as you allow them to stop working for a day before choosing the prettiest girl in the village as this month's wife/dragon sacrifice! It's a lot of fun! 
That all sound so...so terrible! Why would anyone want to be a Peasant?
Peasants don't choose their lives, they're lucky if they get to choose a shade of shit-brown to wear for the next twenty years (the average Peasant lifespan). Peasants are locked into their place by social convention and a system of governance that keeps the important people at the top by any means. 

It all works fine until some Hero comes along and starts spouting-off about "individuality" and "rights". About the worst thing that can happen to slopmongers is the dawning of intelligence. 
Ignorance is bliss after all.

I see. All of a sudden the Hero I was writing about doesn't seem to have much impact.
Nope. If they win then the Toiling conditions might get better by a bit, if they lose then culls and starvation will probably be ordered as a punishment.

Wizard Gudguff looked proudly down on his drooling Hero. Ran had managed to knife the Dark Lord Sorebum in the back of the head before Heroically twisting the blade and emerging from the fires of Mount Fwoom! unscathed. 

Ran stared at his bearded mentor. "Now the bad one is gone." He paused as the next few words hesitantly lined up behind his muscular tongue. "Do we make good...stuff...happen...for my fam'ly?"

Gudguff was torn from his inspection of the deceased Lord Sorebum's collection of Spikey helmets. "Are you off your tits!? Do you have any idea of how much that would cost!?" Gudguff's beard stood almost straight out from his face as his eyes bulged. "Your cretinous family should think themselves lucky! Now they're part of something good! Something permanent! Now I can build a kingdom to last a thousand years!" 

Ran stared dumbly at the Wizard. "Can we make good...stuff...?" he repeated with the implacability of a homeless man lurking near a cashpoint.

"Yes, yes, fine. They can have one extra turnip a month." Gudguff waved his hands impatiently and wished to all the gods he hadn't killed that Ran Dom McGuffin would fall off a cliff.