In fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, sooner or later someone is going mobilize/raise an army to go conquer or loot, pillage, ravage and generally depress property values. Usually this activity is frowned upon by those on the receiving end so they wind up raising their own army to put a stop to things — right quick.
Yes, yes, it’s all great fun until someone loses an eye. Or arm, leg, or whatever. Usually many someones.
And that raises a question. How big can armies realistically be in your super-awesome, blood-soaked epic battle between the forces of good and evil?
Problems arise when writers don’t know that much about the mundane aspects of raising, organizing, equipping, training, leading, and paying an army. Some truly unrealistic things get written in fantasy novels I’ve read. Some are obvious, others are only ‘visible’ to people with an interest in military history — like me.
Most fantasy battles take place in a pre-technical or pre-gunpowder era. It doesn’t really matter if you are talking humans, orcs, drwarves, or elves — in most fantasy stories everyone is toting cold steel, not assault rifles. The concepts of supply lines and logistics are, shall we say, under-developed.
The numberless horde just sort-of appears on the battlefield when needed, suitably kitted out and fed.
So, how to keep things realistic?
You don’t need to be an expert in military affairs, but you do need to keep things at least somewhat connected to reality. Two areas to start are the size of armies and ranks of the combatants.
Example — Your little duchy of a million souls can raise an army of what? 500,000? 50,000? 10,000? No idea? The answer is roughly 7% of the population, or 70,000. Any more than that and people don’t eat because there’s no one to work the farms.
John Savage has written an excellent (and short) article on army size and ranks called The Numberless Hordes — Keeping Your Fantasy Armies a Little Less Fantastic.
It’s a great read, and I will be using it to help keep the fighting in Western Watch a little less, well, fantastic.