Today on Tough Traveling with Fantasy Review Barn, we deal with a topic close to my heart: necromancy!
It should be no secret that I’m fond of necromancers, because I say it all the dang time. I have to mention, though, that I mostly mean literary necromancers: not the real-world ones, who were (are?) basically mediums, and not so much the ones you can find in any fantasy game raising hordes of undead to attack the players. I play a lot of RPGs and MMOs, and Necromancer has never been a class I’ve really enjoyed in those — probably because they’re always a pet class and I hate pet classes! Argh!
Anyway, like I said, I prefer literary necromancers who split the difference between the game and reality. The Tough Guide entry cuts much more closely to the old/real definition too:
NECROMANCY is, in Fantasyland, the art of raising the dead, and you need a specialized Magic User to do it. You must expect to need to consult someone who is dead about two-thirds of the way through your Tour. You must hire or call in a favor from a Necromancer, who will do things with little pots of smoke over the grave and then summon the dead person in words that vibrate the earth and the air. After this, a misty version of the corpse (or sometimes one not misty enough for comfort) will arise, bringing with it a cold blast of air and a strong graveyard Smell. This simulacrum will be able to speak and will have all the memories of the dead person. You must ask it what you want to know. But take care to ask the right questions. Usually such a rite can not be repeated, and the dead are often as literal-minded as computers.
See also Black Arts.
So, as you can see, ‘traditional’ necromancy is just the contacting of the dead to attain knowledge. How did it get to be the huge clusterfuck of zombies and liches and plagues and maniacal laughter that we know today?
Well, I have a necromancer in my cast, and he has Opinions.
“You shouldn’t listen to the propaganda. Over and over, I’ve tried to make advancements, but every time I turn my back some reactionary fanatic bans them for ‘stinking of necromancy’. It’s gotten to the point where they don’t even know what the word means.”
“This…this is necromancy?”
“This is medical magic, […] Dalurvykhe—body magic. It’s no more necromancy than Trifolder healing. True necromancy is the summoning, imprisonment and abuse of the souls of the dead; everything else you hear about necromancers has just been tossed onto the ‘bad things’ pile with it over the millennia. Animating corpses with puppetry—no different from commanding golems. The soul is gone, the flesh just a husk with convenient muscle-memory. Something that doesn’t have to be carved motion-by-motion into a jointless stone.
“And this… […] This works on the dead as well as the living. More difficult on the dead because I have to provide the spark of life to make the flesh knit properly, whereas here that spark is provided by you. Some call this ‘fleshweaving’ but it’s not so different from the talent the skinchangers use to shift their forms. People find it unsettling, though, so into the necromancy bin it goes.”
Obviously, I’ve chosen to expand my world’s definition of necromancy slightly from the real-world version; as mentioned, it’s not just speaking with the dead but any manipulation of dead souls. But the world at large has a much broader view of the subject, which boils down to ‘anything threatening that we want to ban’ and has been used to oppress magic-users who have less-than-wholesome methods or just look or act a bit weird. In a way, I’ve dovetailed these practices with British resurrectionists and the doctors they worked for, in that cadavers are used for medical science/magic despite a ban on the practice — and also with the witch hunts, which were equally vague.
So, in my writing world, people caught in the net of the Necromantic Purges ranged from legitimate (and non-magical) medical professionals, to medical mages, to faith healers of marginalized deities, to graverobbers, to spirit-speakers and priests of Death, to people who maybe decorated too much with skulls and bones, to any type of mage who proposes to do anything involving the human body — living or dead. There was no fighting back against this societal turn because the people being accused of necromancy were only rarely related and had no organization to bind or advocate for them — and most had been tolerated or celebrated by their communities for decades.
Not all victims of the Purges were innocent, of course. There were a rotten few who did trap souls, who did raise corpses to do their bidding, who did spread plagues for various twisted reasons. But there had always been a natural check on such people: Death’s Unseen servants, who are tasked with bringing souls to the Deadlands and keeping them there — and punishing any who try to drag them back to the world of the living. Though dead themselves, the Unseen are too strong for most malicious necromancers to catch or control, and their numbers are endless. A necromancer who wants to maintain an army of the dead needs to learn to do so without sleep or shelter or mortal aid, because the Unseen will always be on their heels.
The Unseen even threaten traditional necromancers who only contact the dead for information; more often than not, seances are interrupted by the Unseen appearing to haul away the ghost and chase off the necromancer. So adding the Purges to the already-tenuous existence of most necromancers means that their ways and practices have almost been annihilated.
For instance, the Purges were never as thorough in the southlands as they were in the north. In a few southern city-states, mages are a protected class, so even those who practice necromancy are considered inviolate unless they use their powers to harm the living. In other places such as Haaraka, the Purges never happened because the people resisted even the idea of them — choosing to see necromancers as beneficial to their society rather than as a threat. And it is true that medical science (not even magic!) has taken a dreadful hit in those areas where the Purges were most active, with the populace relying heavily on folk-remedies and certain priesthoods because of the persecution of doctors.
So while the necromancer quoted above (from Book 2) is clearly a danger to the society in which he operates, it is as much because the society has a history of unreasonable hostility toward people of his skill-set as it is through any malice on his part. Like many scientific and medical professionals, he’s not the kind to stop his work just because his countrymen disapprove of it — and he’s not one to be pushed around.
I like the way that you’ve taken a familiar trope and thought about how to do something new with it. I think that part of the appeal of necromancy as a trope in general, especially a villainous one, probably lies in our taboos around the disruption of bodies, living or dead. These mostly started as perfectly sensible customs – sticking spikey things in your flesh can lead to infections, as can keeping corpses around. But over time they evolved into customs, then subconscious squirming, then taboos of varying degrees of rationality. It means that stories that prod at dead bodies are likely to hit a very live nerve.
And yet so much of our past (and present) medical progress has come from studying and using the dead, whether as surgical cadavers or organ donors or forensic subjects. So we have these great taboos, but also the need to poke and prod and understand these mortal bodies we’re stuck in. And I find that dichotomy far more interesting then simply using necromancers as disease vectors and zombie-army summoners.
Absolutely. The taboos did so much to hold us back in the past, criminalised life-saving behaviour, still lead to certain expressions of individual identity not being acceptable in many workplaces. And then there are people who would still rather die than accept a stranger’s blood. Poking and prodding at that is fascinating – I currently have a notebook half filled with a novel I’m planning around this sort of thing, and now I can feel more ideas stirring.
If you need related ideas, I’ve heard that ‘Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ by Mary Roach is good. I haven’t gotten to it yet but I’ve liked some of her other writing, and it was the first on the subject that popped into my head.
I was never really a biology nerd in school, but I thought it was neat, and I’m drawn to a lot of epidemic- and history-of-medicine related material in nonfiction. In fact, I’ve put a lot of it into my necromancer, what with his unusual skill-set… It entertains me, and maybe all the forensics shows on TV these days will make people a little bit more accepting of the morbid. …or maybe not.
I’ll have to give Stiff a go. And in fact, now you’ve got me thinking about it, I should probably go check out the biology and history of medicine books in my local libraries, see what interesting facts I can dig out and use. Thanks!
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