On Thud and Blunder
Written by Poul Anderson
[This essay was published some years ago and is very difficult to find now, which is why I asked Poul to let me publish it on the Web. He points out that a few things have changed since he wrote it — the essay mentions the Soviet Union, for example, but does not mention navigation satellites — and that he has had some arguments from a few readers about one detail or another. But “there isn’t time now to go into all that,” he says, “and anyway, I never claimed infallibility. It seems to me that most of the points made are still valid.”
It seems to me, too, that they are valid, and that some of them at least have a wider application than just to heroic fantasy. Thinking things through is a good plan in any genre, and research hardly ever hurts one’s prose. — mm]
With one stroke of his fifty-pound sword, Gnorts the Barbarian lopped off the head of Nialliv the Wizard. It flew through the air, still sneering, while Gnorts clove two royal guardsmen from vizor through breasplate to steel jockstrap. As he whirled to escape, an arrow glanced off his own chainmail. Then he was gone from the room, into the midnight city. Easily outrunning pursuit, he took a few sentries at the gate by surprise. For a moment, arms and legs hailed around him through showers of blood; then he had opened the gate and was free. A caravan of merchants, waiting to enter at dawn, was camped nearby. Seeing a magnificent stallion tethered, Gnorts released it, twisted the rope into a bridle, and rode it off bareback. After galloping several miles, he encountered a mounted patrol that challenged him. Immediately he plunged into the thick of the cavalrymen, swinging his blade right and left with deadly effect, rearing up his steed to bring its forefeet against one knight who dared to confront him directly. Then it was only to gallop onward. Winter winds lashed his body, attired in nothing more than a bearskin kilt, but he ignored the cold. Sunrise revealed the shore and his waiting longship. He knew the swift-sailing craft could bring him across five hundred leagues of monster-infested ocean in time for him to snatch the maiden princess Elamef away from evil Baron Rehcel while she remained a maiden — not that he intended to leave her in that condition … .
Exaggerated? Of course. But, unfortunately, not much, where some stories are concerned.
Today’s rising popularity of heroic fantasy, or sword-and-sorcery as it is also called, is certainly a Good Thing for those of us who enjoy it. Probably this is part of a larger movement back toward old-fashioned storytelling, with colorful backgrounds, events, and characters, tales wherein people do take arms against a sea of troubles and usually win. Such literature is not inherently superior to the introspective or symbolic kinds, but neither is it inherently inferior; Homer and James Joyce were both great artists.
Yet every kind of writing is prone to special faults. For example, while no one expects heroic fantasy (hf) to be of ultimate psychological profundity, it is often simple to the point of being simplistic. This is not necessary, as such fine practitioners as de Camp, Leiber, and Tolkien have proven.
Worse, because it is still more obvious and still less excusable, is a frequent lack of elementary knowledge or plain common sense on the part of an author. A small minority of hf stories are set in real historical milieus, where the facts provide a degree of control — though howling errors remain all too easy to make. Most members of the genre, however, take place in an imaginary world. It may be a pre-glacial civilization like Howard’s, an altered time-line like Kurtz’s, another planet like Eddison’s, a remote future like Vance’s, a completely invented universe like Dunsany’s, or what have you; the point is, nobody pretends this is aught but a Never-Never Land, wherein the author is free to arrange geography, history, theology, and the laws of nature to suit himself. Given that freedom, far too many writers nowadays have supposed that anything whatsoever goes, that practical day-to-day details are of no importance and hence they, the writers, have no homework to do before they start spinning their yarns.
Not so! The consequence of making that assumption is, inevitably, a sleazy product. It may be bought by an editor hard up for material, but it will carry none of the conviction, the illusion of reality, which helps make the work of the people mentioned above, and other good writers, memorable. At best, it will drop into oblivion; at worst, it will stand as an awful example. If our field becomes swamped with this kind of garbage, readers are going to go elsewhere for entertainment and there will be no more hf.
Beneath the magic, derring-do, and other glamour, an imaginary world has to work right. In particular, a pre-industrial society, which is what virtually all hf uses for a setting, differs from ours today in countless ways. A writer need not be a walking encyclopedia to get most of these straight. A reasonable amount of research, or sometimes merely a reasonable amount of logical thinking, will do it for him. Let’s consider a few points. A proper discussion would require a book, but we can make a start.
First, some remarks on those societies. Most cultures in hf are based on the European, often as a mishmash of Roman Empire, Dark Ages, and high Middle Ages with a bit of Pharaonic Egypt, Asian nomadism, and so forth on the fringes. This is not bad in itself. Howard succeeded with it. And indeed, the western end of the Eurasian continent was a rather similar potpourri during the Volkerwanderung period (if you regard the Byzantine Empire as the civilized core of Christendom). I do think the time is overpast for drawing inspiration from other milieus — Oriental, Near Eastern, North and Black African, Amerindian, Polynesian, an entire world — and am happy to see that several writers have begun doing so. However, in this essay I’ll stick close to home.
Even the writers I have cited say little about the producing classes in their worlds, with the notable exception of de Camp. Yet the fact is that it takes a lot of peasants, artisans, and such-like humble people to support one noble or, for that matter, one bandit or roving barbarian. We tend to forget this in our mechanized modern Western civilization, where only a small percentage of the work force is occupied with the necessities of life. Right up till the early part of the twentieth century, though, most of our own population was rural, as most of it still is elsewhere on Earth. In town, the typical worker was not one of the kind we know, putting in forty comparatively easy hours a week, owning a house and car and the other customary amenities. No, he was a dirt-poor hod carrier or ditch digger or something like that, laboring almost till he dropped of exhaustion and glad to get the job. While unions doubtless helped improve his lot, they could not have done so without the increased productivity which advancing technology made possible.
Thus our creator of hf can gain verisimilitude and interesting detail by paying some attention to the lower classes, the vast majority of his world’s population. Besides, their situation affects what his hero can do. For example, in many medieval countries the peasants were subject to a military draft; the king could summon them to fight his wars for him. However, the time of year at which he could do so was strictly circumscribed by law. He couldn’t call them up before the crops were in, nor keep them till harvest, lest everybody starve. Harold of England faced this problem in 1066. William of Normandy, commanding mostly mercenaries and adventurers, did not to the same degree.
Incidentally, mercenaries are not always reliable. They tend to make trouble if they don’t get paid — and medieval monarchs were chronically short of money. Early in the fourteenth century, a troop of Catalans practically took the Byzantine Empire apart on that account. Mercenaries are also likely to be more interested in their own survival and prerogatives, especially loot, than in furthering the interests of their employers. The backbone of Rome was the yeoman farmer class, from which the legions were recruited; when this was destroyed by the Punic Wars and their aftermath, and Rome must gradually go more and more to hirelings, her doom was sealed. Surely a number of good hf stories lie in this motif.
Returning to peasants, laborers, merchants, and the rest, these words are too general. How well off are such people, how leisured, how independent? That has varied tremendously throughout history. Free landholders in Scandinavia would originally get together to make their own laws, try their own cases, accept a new king and then depose him later if they didn’t like him. Their descendants became wretched tenants and, in Denmark, outright serfs. In contrast, though by our standards workers in cities put in long, hard hours and were under many restrictions: still, after the Black Death had furnished a convenient labor shortage, they were comparatively well off. In fact, for some centuries they enjoyed more leisure, in the form of frequent holidays, than we do now.
Thus the status of ordinary people has depended on social conditions as much as technological. If taxes and other governmental demands on them were moderate, they had plenty of spare time and energy, in between bouts of toil that would kill many of us today. As those demands grew, so did their misery. Of course, in either case they were subject to famines and pestilences — another detail unmentioned in most hf, yet potent narrative matter.
A medieval city was curiously divided. On the one hand, the respectable part of it was highly structured, with guilds controlling much of the private lives as well as the work of members. On the other hand, the poor sector was chaotic and dangerous, as we may read in the poems of Villon. Between Internal Revenue and welfare, we seem to be re-approaching this dichotomy. We do still have fairly sharp geographical separation of urban classes. In an ancient or medieval town, any districts there were were usually along occupational lines. A rich merchant would live near the appropriate street, but his house would be apt to stand like an island in the middle of poverty, vice, and savagery. This could make our hero’s abrupt exit from it more interesting than he intended.
If he left after dark, he would scarcely run as trippingly as we have shown Gnorts the Barbarian doing. People who have experienced blackouts will tell you that a nighted city without the modern invention of lights is black. With walls shutting off most of the sky — especially along narrow medieval streets — it is far gloomier that any open field. You’d grope your way, unless you had a torch or lantern (and then you’d better have an armed guard). Furthermore, those lanes were open sewers; in many places, stepping stones went down the middle because of that. Despite sanitary measures, metropolitan streets as late as about 1900 were often uncrossable simply because of horse droppings. Graveyards stank too: one reason why incense was used in church services.
This brings up again the prevalence of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and bubonic plague. They struck especially hard at cities. The fear of them was ever-present in everybody’s mind. That detail could be worked into a story to telling effect.
Darkness and crime did call forth partial answers. For instance, professional escorts carrying lights were available. The Byzantines in their heyday had a regular police force, while in many Western cities of a later date each able-bodied man must help patrol his own neighborhood. I should think a wandering warrior might quickly get a job as a cop, and thereby come upon strange situations.
Or he might not. Travel could be extremely difficult, not merely because of physical problems and robbers, but because of official wariness. Fire being another hazard very much in the public awareness, you could not get into a Danish town around 1500 without convincing documentation; the fear of foreign arsonists was that great. (Doubtless it was unfounded, but we’ve seen enough popular paranoia in our own age, haven’t we?) Elsewhere, the mayoralty might suppose you were a spy, or the guilds might not want to admit a new worker. (Again, this sounds not unfamiliar.) Contretemps like these could add depth, color, and perhaps humor to the adventures of our hero.
In fact, the whole relationship between a city and the rest of its society can be fascinating. It need not be borrowed from Western history, either — “city air is free air,” the rise of the bourgeoisie, and so on. Ancient Russia, for instance, followed a course almost the reverse of ours: beginning with cities and capitalism, which stimulated agricultural development of the hinterlands.
Politics in general is much neglected in hf. Usually its governments are absolute monarchies, whether of kings or emperors, though the real world has known many different arrangements. If the monarch is tyrannical, our hero may lead a revolt and find himself the next ruler. Little or nothing is said about the infinitely intricate mechanics of organizing a rebellion or, for that matter, about the legal questions involved. Can Gnorts truly seize the throne? He’ll have to have an acquiescent majority, at the very least; else his regime won’t last an hour. Now Odoacer the Scyrrian could push the legitimate Roman Emperor out in 476 — but he hastened to offer homage to Constantinople, and at that, his power was shaky and soon overthrown. No outsider could have won such a title in the Eastern Empire, whose lord had to be a citizen and of the Orthodox faith. The crusaders did impose a Latin reign in 1204, but it was loathed and the Byzantines got rid of it as fast as they were able.
Howard could make Conan’s accession reasonably plausible. The rest of us might do better to make our hero the power behind the throne. In fact, why must he be a barbarian? A civilized man influencing an uncivilized conqueror, as Ye Liu Chutsai did Genghis Khan, may give a far more intriguing story, in either sense of the word.
In any event, the monarchy or oligarchy won’t be the sole mover of society. It never has been, not even in the contemporary Soviet Union and slave China. There are always other interests and groups whose leaders must be conciliated. An obvious example is the late J. Edgar Hoover; theoretically, any President could summarily have dismissed him, but in practice that was a political impossibility. More to the hf point, perhaps, are the consequences to Henry II of England when he had Thomas a Becket assassinated. Indeed, the ever-changing interrelationships of kings, nobles, and Church form a major part of the medieval European tapestry. One can go on to power groups in more distant lands, such as the Janissaries in Turkey or the Shogunate in Japan, to find endless complications which are the stuff of exciting tales.
(One hf novel which handles politics superbly well, and is a fine story in every other respect too, is The Well of the Unicorn by Fletcher Pratt. If you haven’t already read it, do.)
The Church raises the subject of religion in general, which is little used in our field. Oh, yes, we may get a hero swearing by his particular gods and perhaps carrying through a small rite, equivalent to stroking a rabbit’s foot. We certainly got plenty of obscene ceremonies in honor of assorted toad-like beings. Both of these do have their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see an imaginary society which was pervaded by its faith, as many real ones have been.
One way or another, religion is usually the well-spring of literacy. If Never-Never Land has no printing press or public schools, how many people can read? How did they learn? How common is paper or some equally cheap, convenient material to write upon? Who produces and who sells it, under what conditions? How do letters travel? Questions like these could well be crucial to our hero.
The available transportation positively is. Now we are so accustomed to reasonably reliable and well-sprung automobiles on smooth roads, when we don’t fly, that we have almost forgotten how hard and slow it once was to get from here to there. Most people in the past spent their entire lives in walking distance of wherever they were born. This must deeply have affected their personalities, even as mobility has affected ours.
The Romans, improving on the example of the Persians, knit their empire together with excellent paved highways. These were for armies and imperial messengers. Ordinary people could use them, but that wasn’t the main idea, and doubtless most civilian traffic continued to be over dirt tracks. Anyone who has hiked or marched through mud will appreciate the importance of a proper military road. When Rome had fallen and commerce shrank down to local trading, most of this network was quarried. In the Middle Ages, a landholder could help guarantee his salvation — and collect tolls — by building and maintaining a road or bridge. It was that important to everyone. Not just mud, but wilderness impeded travel. Huge areas of Europe were covered by forest that, because of underbrush, was literally impassable; some coastal communities could be reached only by sea. If given a reasonable surface to roll on, chariots, wagons, and coaches remained exhausting things in which to ride. After a day of such vibration, the passenger would feel as if he’d been through a meat grinder. The brutality of it is epitomized by the fact that, in the nineteenth century, the working life of a coach horse was reckoned at four years.
Thus our hero will usually do better to go pedestrian or equestrian. As for the latter choice, writers who’ve had no personal experience with horses tend to think of them as a kind of sports car. ‘Tain’t so.
You cannot gallop them for hours. They’ll collapse. The best way to make time in the saddle is to alternate paces, and have a remount or two trailing behind, and allow the animals reasonable rest. Don’t let your steed eat or drink indiscriminately; it’s likely to bloat and become helpless. In fact, it’s a rather fragile creature, requiring close attention — for example, rubdowns after hard exertion — if it isn’t to fall sick and perhaps die on you. It’s also lazy, stupid, and sometimes malicious. All of these tendencies the rider must keep under control.
You cannot grab any old horse and go to battle on it. It’ll instantly become unmanageable. Several of us in the Society for Creative Anachronism tried a little harmless jousting, and soon gave up … and this was with beasts whose owners were already practicing the more pacific equestrian arts, such as tilting at a ring. War horses had to be raised to it from colthood. The best cavalrymen were, too. For lack of that tradition, the vikings, for instance, never fought mounted. Upon landing in a victim country, they’d steal themselves four-legged transportation, but having reached a scene of action, they’d get down.
Cavalry was of no particular importance in Europe until about the sixth century, when stirrups were introduced from the East. Before then, combatants were too likely to fall off. Earlier, the chief military use of the horse had been with chariots: until the Greek hoplite and Roman legionary learned how to cope with these. Later, nobody riding bareback stood a chance against an enemy who had a proper saddle.
Frequently in hf, and for that matter in h’f and Wf (historical and Western fantasy), the hero cavorts around on a snorting stallion. Now this has been done in reality, but seldom, and that for good reason. A stallion is notoriously hard to control, and, by the way, is not safe to have around a menstruating woman. (Of course, hf heroines never seem to menstruate, which may account for the fact that they don’t get pregnant, no matter how active in bed.) A mare or, better, gelding is preferable.
In short, our hero is going to face practical problems in getting around on land. The same will apply if he goes by sea. I’ll say nothing about pirates, though in most eras they posed a considerable hazard. I will mention that, even under the Roman Empire, more often than not it paid to travel across the water; terrestrial transportation was that bad. Nevertheless —
Ships in hf normally have sails but act as if they had Diesel engines. They take the lead character where he wants to go, fast, effortlessly, and comfortably. They are never becalmed and they never meet weeks of foul weather. In spite of being square-rigged, they can go as close to the wind as the captain chooses. (Ah, many’s the time I’ve wished I could make a well-designed sloop do that. But it took most of a morning, for instance, to work out of one quite small bay. In the nineteenth century, ships would sometimes lie in Honolulu harbor for months, waiting for the right wind to blow them across the Pacific.) These same vessels have abundant elbow room for everybody; food and water are always palatable; there are no special housekeeping problems. (In actuality the First Law of the Sea, as formulated by Jerry Pournelle and myself, is: “It’s in the bilge!”) Sometimes, in both hf and h’f, we have galley slaves. Again, authors are inclined to treat them as if they were engines; they don’t get tired, they don’t get sick, they don’t stink, you don’t have to keep a guard on them lest they revolt. In real history, rowers were only used on naval vessels, and for the most part were free men, well paid. Galley slaves were not a Roman but a late medieval invention, brought about by the need to bring cannon to bear on short notice.
The average hf sailor has no navigation woes. Yet this problem wasn’t solved till the eighteenth century, with the development of the chronometer — and the story of that R & D effort is a complex one, full of human bitchiness. To this day, the solution is not perfect. Ask a seaman to tell you what it’s like, using a modern sextant, to get a decent sight on a star. Nor has electronics made locating yourself automatic and infallible, short of the most highly advanced inertial systems. So imagine an early Norseman bound from Oslo to Greenland. He has a knowledge of landmarks and the heavens when these are visible; a peg will help him estimate his latitude of a clear day allows it to cast a shadow, and the natural polarizing filter he calls a “sunstone” will help him locate the solar orb in cloudy weather; but these aids give him only the crudest approximations, while longitutde is a matter of sheer dead reckoning or guesswork. Seaweed, bird fights, and similar indications are probably more helpful; indeed, he may well carry some birds in a cage, release them one at a time when he thinks he may be near a shore, and watch which way they go. Chances are that he’ll make landfall a goodly distance from his goal and have to work along the coast to find it.
Compass, astrolabe, and a few other advantages improved matters as the Middle Ages wore on, but not greatly. If his story is to be convincing, our itinerant barbarian will not travel without lots of difficulty, discomfort, and delay.
Presumably he’s bound for someplace where he can fight. After he arrives on the battlefield, he will still face a host of complications. Let me merely observe in passing that, right up until World War Two, far more soldiers died of disease than did in action; that the outcome of a siege was frequently determined by whether the attackers took sick faster than the defenders starved; and that germs were sometimes the arbiters of entire wars. Let me suggest that this, too, is a realistic motif which hf writers could occasionally use to advantage. Now let’s get on to actual combat.
First, consider again the sociology of it. Incomparably drilled and disciplined, the Roman legionary almost always made hash of his foes, until the society which had produced him rotted away. In medieval England, every yeoman of military age was required by law to have a longbow and spend a set number of hours per week practicing with it. As a result, the English archers during the Hundred Years’ War were the terror of the French, who tried to raise a similar corps but failed because they hadn’t institutionalized the training. In general, the civil background of an army is the most important element in its long-range success or failure, with its own organization and morale a close second. Half-trained barbarians may win a fluke victory over civilized troops once in a while, but that won’t count for much. They can only prevail over a civilization after it has ruined itself.
Technology counts too, of course, though sometimes in paradoxical ways. The longbow was driven off the field by the crossbow and later the crossbow by the musket, not because these weapons were successively superior — they weren’t — but because it was successively quicker and easier to teach a man their use. The hf writer ought to visualize just what kind of arms his characters employ, and think through the military implications.
As for hand-to-hand fights, it would doubtless be unfair to demand that he belong to the SCA or go in for fencing or javelin throwing or archery. We’ll have to bear with heroes’ occasional ignorance of technique. That would soon prove fatal in real life; luckily, fictional villains share the ignorance.
However, can’t the author do a little reading in encyclopedias, under headings like “Fencing”? And is it too much trouble to delve further than that? Any reasonably sized public or college library must contain some relevant books. If nothing else, can’t he take half a minute to visualize before he writes?
If he does, he’ll instantly see that nobody in his right mind would grab a sword two-handed, raise it over his head, and chop straight down, exposing his belly all that while. The use of those huge Reformation-period two-handers was a highly developed art whose practitioners were specialists.
Carrying a shield, you’re as apt to work around its edge as over the top. By the way, the purpose of that shield is to stay between you and your enemy’s weapon, not act as a counterweight to a roundhouse swing. There are tricks you can play with it, such as using its edge to lever your opponent’s shield out of your way; but I’ve rarely seen fantasy warriors do anything so skillful.
Artists tend to be still worse offenders than authors — for instance, depicting a man wielding a dagger overhand, and, while they’re at it, dressing the poor guy in nothing but a bearskin kilt in a winter landscape or on a horse. (For a human male, the latter placement is much the worse.)
Nobody can wield a fifty-pound sword; he’d wear his arm out in short order. An ax or mace, large dependent on sheer mass for beating through an enemy’s guard, is nowhere near that heavy either. A replicated ax, Battle of Hastings type, in my possession, weighs a bit under five pounds. Nevertheless, it takes muscle to swing any edged weapon. Therefore I suspect that a woman-at-arms would look less like Dejah Thoris than Rosie the Riveter. In fact, we have no reliable records of female warriors. Joan of Arc commanded, she did not engage in combat.
True, primary sources can’t always be trusted. Thus, in the generally realistic Icelandic sagas, you find a few references to somebody cutting a head or limb off somebody else with a single stroke. Try this on a pork roast, suspended without a chopping block, and see how far you get.
It could be done with the best of the classic Japanese swords, which are marvels of metallurgy. However, one of these must be treated very carefully if it isn’t to be ruined. The mere touch of a finger can induce corrosion.
The cruder blades of Europe demanded still closer attention. Edged weapons are more fragile than one might think, especially if they are bronze or medieval-type steel. Those quickly go blunt and become simple clubs; ofttimes they bend and must be more or less straightened with a foot and an oath; they can break. Not even with a samurai sword do you cut through armor.
At the same time, armor does have its vulnerabilities. These are not so much to the thrust of the cleaving blow. I have witnessed SCA experiments in which chain mail made from coat hanger wire, backed by a hay bale, could not be penetrated by sword, ax, or spear. Obviously only repeated impacts on the same spot could fatigue the metal enough to let a weapon through. Plate armor should be still hardier. Bear in mind that, in both cases, padding was worn beneath. Still, if a man was getting hit hour after hour, eventually it might prove too much for his body to endure, if heat prostration didn’t get him first.
Armor of either kind could be pierced by a hard-driven arrow, from longbow or crossbow. These devices had their own limitations. I have already mentioned how much training was necessary to make the former effective. Though not an archer myself, I am skeptical about hundred-pound draws; it seems to me that, for accuracy and rate of fire, seventy-five might be a more reasonable figure. As for crossbows, though their bolts struck equally hard, they were considerably slower than longbows. As said, their decisive advantage was that they were easier to learn to use.
If armor is not involved, then ordinarily in fiction, a single blow, thrust, or arrow suffices to drop a man or a horse dead on the spot. Actually, so large an animal is quite hard to kill. The .45 caliber pistol was developed specifically as a man-stopper, and still men hit from one have been known to keep on coming. Hf swordsmen generally run their foes right through the heart. Well, not only is the heart a fairly small target whose exact location is hard to identify, but it’s pretty protected by the rib cage. Personally, I’d go for the throat — the larynx is highly vulnerable, not to speak of the jugular vein or carotid arteries — or the abdomen, where I might slash another big artery or have a chance of skewering the liver — or the legs, in hopes of crippling my opponent.
The back of the neck is another weak point, if you can get at it, as with a hefty rabbit punch. The skull is stronger, though it can be smashed with a heavy weapon and a lighter blow may render the victim unconscious. Here hf and mf (mystery fantasy) writers make man out to be more durable than he is. Their heroes get knocked out, awaken after a while as if from a nap, and plunge right back into action. The truth is, a mild concussion is disabling for periods ranging from hours to days, and as for a severe one, the consequences are not pleasant to watch.
If you wish further possibilities for mayhem, I refer you to experts in karate. Techniques of this kind seldom occur in hf, but surely they could enliven some stories.
We have less scope where poisons are concerned, common though they are in fiction. Medieval and Renaissance princes lived in terror of these, but the fact is that prior to modern chemistry, there were virtually no quick-acting toxins you could slip to somebody unbeknownst, or on the point of a weapon. Curare is about all that comes to mind, and that’s South American. Indeed, I’ve seen a couple of Renaissance recipes for poisons to feed dinner guests, and the main question about them is how anybody ever imagined anybody else could ever gag down enough of that awful stuff to suffer serious damage.
Arsenic was about the deadliest substance readily available, with a few competitors like hemlock, toadstools, and ground glass. The problem was usually to disguise the taste. In any event, while a person could occasionally be given a lethal dose, he would hardly drop dead at once. He’d be a considerable and messy time about his demise. I rather imagine that quite a few deaths which were attributed to deliberate poisoning were actually caused by botulism or the like.
Lest the foregoing seem bloodthirsty, let me add that another flaw in most hf is the glossing over of pain, mangling, and the ordinarily grim process of dying. True, we don’t want to get sadistic. And as a rule, we presume an era less sensitive than ours; most have been. And we’re writing and reading for fun, not to preach moral lessons or harrow emotions. Still, a bit more realism in this respect too would lend convincingness.
We can then swing back to cheerful matters, such as harvest festivals, drunken evenings in taverns, and fertility rites where sympathetic magic gets totally sympathetic. We can let our hero have all kinds of adventures, buckle all kinds of swashes. I merely submit that he ought to do so in a world which, however thaumaturgical, makes sense. The more it does, the more the reader will enjoy — and the more he will come back for more.