Life Lessons of the Fallen
A few months ago I shared my thoughts on The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a ten-part fantasy series by Canadian author Steven Erikson and why I both would and wouldn’t recommend it to people. Needless to say, I absolutely loved the series (enough to get a Malazan-inspired tattoo, in fact). With ten books and millions of words to explore characters and themes in his world, Erikson created an emotionally resonant story that’s impossible not to get fully immersed in. And apart from the pure enjoyment and thrill of reading the books, I actually learned a lot of valuable life lessons throughout the series. Erikson explores complex themes to present social commentary on everything from politics to religion to mortality and economics. Without spoiling anything, here are a few things I’ve learned from The Malazan Book of the Fallen:
In a story spanning literally millennia, with characters just as old, history obviously plays a large part in the story. We watch events turn into legends and then into myths, we see history being rewritten by the victors of wars and we watch as immortal characters forget even their own ancient pasts. History isn’t static or stationary, it’s constantly changing and evolving as we discover new things with the perspective of the present.
“’Children are dying’. That’s a succinct summary of humankind, I’d say. Who needs tomes and volumes of history? Children are dying. The injustices of the world hide in those three words.” – Deadhouse Gates
One of the main point of view characters in the second novel, Deadhouse Gates, is a historian. He joins an army to document their journey escorting refugees across a war-torn continent, all the while being pursued and attacked by other armies. Seeing these events through his eyes, and how he pays attention to every minor detail, every seemingly unimportant soldier and starving child, reminded me that history isn’t always just about the kings and presidents and “major characters”, but everyday people. In fact, we never see this storyline from the commander of the army’s perspective, only the historian and minor soldiers following him. Like Lord of the Rings, it’s inspiring to see that anyone – even hobbits – can make an impact on history.
History is filled with people doing horrible things for what – in their opinion – is a just cause. This is especially true with religion.
“All that they do in that god’s name is at its core profoundly godless.” – The Bonehunters
Malazan presents some of the most unique religious structures and commentaries on faith I’ve seen in fantasy – or any literature for that matter. Characters can ascend to become gods, gods can lose power from their followers or even be killed. This is a great example of Erikson taking a concept – in this case the fragility and evolution of religion – and making it literal. In our world, entire religions can be created by different translations of similar words and relationships can be torn apart through differences of beliefs. It would have been easy for Erikson to only show the negative sides of religion but he also shows gods genuinely showing compassion and characters being strengthened and inspired by their faith – and respect between differing beliefs. Though you may not agree with another person’s particular faith, if it’s clear it adds value to their life then its validity shouldn’t be discounted. And on the other hand, the negative actions of one follower shouldn’t paint one picture of an entire religion – even in Malazan, gods get angry and facepalm at what their followers do in their name.
As you’d expect from a series called “The Book of the Fallen“, some pretty horrible things happen to these characters. But the violence only ever serves the story and is never presented in a gratuitous way. Using his experience as an anthropologist, Erikson weaves real-life inspired events in his story, one of which happens to be an extremely brutal form of torture and rape. Regarding this scene, Erikson has told readers to “recoil in horror with this scene. I did. But keep your eyes on the page. Read it through, but not for me. Don’t for an instant read it through for my sake.” It’s a scene I’m sure several readers would rather skip or glance over for the sake of their own comfort, but that does a disservice to the real-life victims of similar torture. We can’t empathize with someone whose struggles we aren’t aware of.
“The language of redemption is compassion. Compassion is all about understanding, and understanding is all about seeing, clear-eyed, all the things we would, perhaps, rather not see.” – Steven Erikson
Everyone around us is going through their own journey with their own unique struggles. Reading these books and seeing how Erikson uses these struggles with the purpose of encouraging compassion wasn’t something I’d expected from such a notoriously “dark” series. It served as a reminder not to judge others but instead to try to see their point of view and empathize with them. This may be the most important lesson from these books – and a theme Erikson makes very clear was intentional. Maybe this was even the entire purpose of writing The Malazan Book of the Fallen, to document the trials and pain of the nameless “fallen”, those who struggle everyday without anyone else being aware, and to teach us to feel compassion towards them.
Or maybe he just wanted to write about dragons and magic battles.