Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, [conjure] up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favor’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
–William Shakespeare, Henry V
My copy of The Face of Battle greets its reader with the profiled, mail-coifed skull of a Swedish soldier killed in the Battle of Visby, 27 July 1361. This simple, arresting image serves as a proverbial “worth a thousand words” summary of author John Keegan’s seminal work of military history. It is, in my opinion, a must-read for devotees of historical and/or fictional combat.
When I read fantasy literature I often find myself caught up in the action, thrilling in the swirl of combat without regard for the carnage and misery that actual battle wreaks on its participants. The Face of Battle is the bitter antidote to these vicarious feelings of heroism and joyous slaughter that possess me during my literary excursions, reminding me that a battlefield—medieval, Napoleonic, modern, or Hyborian Age, for that matter—is no place that I’d really want to be. Ultimately, Keegan’s book is a powerful statement against the insanity of armed conflict.
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