The Black Company by Glen Cook

Glen Cook’s The Black Company is about the stubborn endurance of heroism in the midst of unbelievable wickedness and depravity. The story is incredibly dark, but there is a core of hope that shines through. This is the book that everyone who claims they like grimdark fantasy should read to see how it should be done.

I first became aware of The Black Company because of the thematic and titular similarity with Nick Cole’s Strange Company. One of the most important questions that both books tackle is: where does authority come from? Why do men follow orders, fight and die because someone said so?

The social technology of the era of nationalism, the Long Lifetime that saw the peak of the power and reach of the nation-state, attempted to merge the fortunes of the people and the state by identifying them both as “the nation”.

However, Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori is not an option for a mercenary band, and doubly not so in the decadent and fallen world of The Black Company. There is nothing sweet or fitting about any of the masters the Company serves, yet they serve nontheless. Why?

For mercenaries, getting paid is an obvious one. Helen Andrews said in her First Things article on famous mercenary “Mad Mike” Hoare:

The two worst things that can happen to a mercenary are dying and not getting paid, possibly not in that order. Think of it this way: Plenty of mercenaries have a death-wish; not one has ever had a not-getting-paid-wish.

But I think there is more to it than that. Money is involved, but also a search for adventure, and a certain disregard for the rules of polite society are certainly included as well. I suspect that men like Hoare go off to war, and come back and find out they don’t fit in anymore.

However, that still doesn’t tell us why mercenary units hang together. Individual motivations don’t create cohesive units, and cohesive units are far more valuable than a mob of aggressive men. Most any country can raise a mob of armed men. Many cannot field disciplined units that follow orders and respond intelligently to changing circumstances.

The kind of mercenaries we are talking about here are an elite, far above the level of the average soldier of their day. How you attain and maintain that status, let alone the status itself is not often useful or respected outside of a military context.

Not every military elite throughout history has the skills to match their pride, but the Black Company does. They fight for pride, in themselves and in their brothers.

Another reason, one that was eclipsed by never eliminated by nationalistic motivations, is honor. Men fight and die for their brothers, and for the honor of the company they comprise. This distinguishes mercenary companies from pirates or brigands, who also fight for money, but are less disciplined and coherent. Has any band of pirates ever done something as remarkable as the March of the Ten Thousand?

Retreat of the Ten Thousand at the Battle of Cunaxa, by Jean Adrien Guignet. Louvre

By Adrien Guignet - [1], Public Domain,

Which is not to say that a sense of honor is identical to being a good man. Violence and vengeance are often the watchwords of honor, doubly so when we are speaking of the honor of men who sell their swords to the highest bidder. The men of the Black Company have all the vices of soldiers, mostly wine and wenching, but also sometimes cruelty and extortion.

And that isn’t even getting into what they do professionally. All the other things I mentioned are just hobbies. War is hell, especially when nasty wizards are involved. And nasty wizards are involved in everything of importance in the book. I really enjoyed Cook’s wizards, who are strange and mind-numbingly powerful, not to mention disturbing and menacing. Much like nuclear weapons, you are powerless if you don’t have wizards, but you are sorry that wizards ever got involved.

The Black Company finds itself drawn into a wizard war, and the more you know, the worse it gets. There is a really funny exchange where Raven, a skilled recruit the Company picked up, harasses the POV character Croaker for glossing over all the horrible things they see in the annals Croaker keeps for the Company. And what Croaker does describe is pretty horrible. I appreciated this touch, as it sets the scene without descending into misery pr0n, a signature failing of so many authors who attempt “realistic” fantasy.

I’ve seen the men of the Black Company described as “amoral” or “grey”, but I think this misses the mark. Cook does a great job capturing the fatalism of soldiers, especially soldiers who do not respect their masters or the missions that they are assigned. But the men of the Black Company are excellent at what they do. They are proud, and honorable, and all of those things are ordered to the good. Excellence, pride, and honor are the seed of the good even in the most degenerate of circumstances.

To reject their evil masters entirely would simply mean an inglorious, and probably horrible death. That is an act of supernatural virtue, and not to be expected in this literary world. What you see instead is how soldiers keep themselves together in the worst of circumstances, hoping for something better. And there are hints of something better, if you know how to look for them.

This is a great book, well deserving of its reputation.

The Black Company [Amazon link]

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