Warcries: The Coolest Thing Fantasy Barely Uses

Just about every individual country on Earth has a multitude of its own, unique warcries. From the classic Russian “Urrraaaaaahhh” to the Teutonic Knights’ “GOTT MITT UNS!” and the U.S. Army’s “Hoo-ah!” it’s hard to find humans at war without warcries.

Oh, except in Fantasy. In fantasy humans barely use these outside of Warhammer Fantasy, which due to recent-ish events I can’t bring myself to use as an example.

In fact, neither do the bad guys, usually. Before I go further, I should probably define what I actually mean by warcry. For my purposes this is something–generally shouted because battles are noisy–which a warrior learns either from his culture or his specific order of warriors (be that knightly, a military branch, or something else) which warriors use to psych themselves up once battle is joined. They’re most frequently used before lines clash or the shooting starts, but don’t stop once these things do begin.

Well, they’re generally not used once the shooting starts because it’s important not to draw attention to yourself in a firefight. Guns changed a lot of long-standing military traditions, and today I killed Captain Obvious and I’m wearing his face. Psycho humor aside, I lay this out to distinguish warcries from songs and chants used before either force starts its advance, and definitely from the victory shouts you make after winning. Shouting “Roma Invicta!” while getting wrecked in Teutoburg wouldn’t have made much sense, would it?

The Wheel of Time does score some points with me on this count, but strangely not that many. In a series where I frequently appreciated Jordan’s use of sound to affect the feel of words, Aes Sedai being an especially strong example, his warcries do little for me. “Carai an caldazar!” is unwieldy and arrhythmic when you can just scream CARAIIIII!!! at the top of your lungs. “Wash the spears” is more a poem than a proper warcry and also, while I appreciate the attempt to be subversive:

“Wash.” So many words available and the Aiel choose “Wash.” Not “drench” which has a good hard D–yes, we’re all thinking the same thing, but let’s stay focused for now–a hard R to pull the mouth into its lone vowel and soft N, and a soft ch that you can either really hammer on or barely enunciate as the mood takes you before you move into the last two words. Not “Feed the spears,” or alternatively “Feast the spears,” not “Bathe the spears,” not “Push the spears” nor “Drive the spears,” but “Wash the spears.” Try snarling the word “Wash!” in isolation without feeling ridiculous, and don’t cheat by imagining you’re yelling at your college roommates.

There’s an argument to be made that comparing bloodshed to something as banal as laundry is a powerful symbolic statement, but… it’s just trying too hard, guys. “Oh, we kill so much, it’s like doing the washing up!” Neat. I prefer warriors who charge into battle howling with bloodlust and are far more horrifying for staying just as enthusiastic no matter how much they kill, and shriek like the death-agonies of a shattered world, but you guys go wash your spears.

And c’mon, that’s so literal! So, you guys are going to stab some people with your spears? What’s the point of a warcry that just summarizes a basic action? This isn’t hardcore, it’s over-complicated! I think I hear every faction in 40K sneering simultaneously. Since I bring them up here are a few pulled from throughout the Grim, Dark Future:

-“For the Emperor!” a classic, with a solid, non-silly rhyme to tie its words together. “Emperor” just lends itself beautifully to being shouted, especially if you roll its Rs.
-“Purge the Xenos!” speciesist and… awesome? Damn it, Imperium, stop confusing me! In fact, just shouting “PURGE!” over and over again will do you just fine in most cases. Or:
-“Cleanse! Purge! Kill!” On the same level as “Gott Mitt Uns” as far as chanting maniacally while marching into battle. Each word is viciously satisfying on its own, with different consonants and vowels so each adds its own rhythm.
-“Glory to the first man to die!” Ah, the Imperial Guard, always a pleasure. This one’s a little long, but its rhythm saves it from feeling that way.
-“Blood for the Blood God! Skulls for the Skull Throne!” A bit too long and not the most original, but it gets the point across and that’s good enough.

In general, if you want to write more cool stuff, crib from 40K.

Here’s the vital thing about war-cries: punch. They need to come out fast, pump you up, and stop taking your breath. A multi-line prose poem is never going to be as effective in a combat setting as a bunch of furious Germans just chanting “GOTT — MITT — UNS” repeatedly in time with their steps and clashing their weapons against their shields.

Okay, yes, we’ve covered before that throwing Germans into most fantasy is sort of unfair. Or Russians, for that matter, since a wedge of Russian knights dropping their lances in line and roaring “URRRRRAAAAAAAAA” will terrify any sane person. Which is the point. That’s the point of warcries. Not to tell the enemy how honorable you are, Matrim, or give them a chance to appreciate your beat poetry, all the Aiel–but to intimidate them, break their morale and bolster your own.

Morale doesn’t just mean “not running in terror.” It means motivation, the unit’s overall drive and energy. Again, just about every historical group of human warriors had multiple warcries. These are people going forth to kill and die. Fripperies fall away pretty quickly at that point, which means anything they’re still holding onto must be important.

More basically, this ties into everything I said back in the “Your Armies of Light Are Thoroughly Uninspiring” articles about unit and national identity. A war-cry ties back into the culture and language of its people. This can be obvious–a force that roars “CLEAVE THE WICKED!” has some pretty clear opinions on the use of violence to enforce morals–or more subtle, as with the depth difference between the way war-cries were handled in most conventionally “Medieval” countries as opposed to Japan.

Most European countries, and the United States in particular, tend to drop their pitch during war-cries and hold it fairly steady throughout. I doubt there’s a single source for this, but it ties pretty clearly in with Western ideas about masculinity and the warrior complex. In Japan, to a lesser extent during kiai used in martial arts but quite pronounced in, for example, a Kurosawa film, war-cries much more frequently change pitches, and whether they change or not they actually tend to be made at a slightly higher pitch than the warrior’s speaking voice.

The main exceptions to this are rough-and-tumble characters like Sanjuro, or lumbering brutes who… are lumbering brutes. They talk, act and fight more or less the same way in every culture.

Otherwise, war-cries in most cultures are split pretty clearly between two main varieties: purely phonetic ones (see again URRRRAAAAAAA) and words or phrases that actually mean something. With the phonetic ones, you generally want it to be a single short or average-length “word” that the warrior can clip or really draw out as necessary. Again: punchy is key. On the flip side, “AAAAAAAAAHHHHHH” is not a faction-specific war-cry. That’s the generic sound of a human shout, and goes beyond any national line or culture.

It’s also the sound people make when running away, just with a different tone, so be aware of that. I actually recommend you start with the phonetic ones for this exact reason: they let you focus purely on how the words sound. Move into warcries with actual meaning once you’re getting good at rhyme, rhythm, and length. Fair warning: you’re going to turn into a lunatic just shouting random sounds without warning or remorse before you’re through. That’s good. That’s the only way to test whether your war-cries are working.

As a rule of thumb, if you start shouting it over and over again and acting the way the war-cry’s users do, you’ve got a good one. Another rule I’ve discovered: what sounds are effective depends a lot on how you say them. A group of English knights shouting “EEEEEEEE!” is a consonant away from becoming a living Python sketch, and everyone will be embarrassed they were a part of this battle. A group of Japanese Onna-Bushi shouting the same sound becomes ear-piercing dissonance, disorienting the listener no matter whether they’re frightened or not.

Once you get into war-cries with an actual meaning, remember: every nation has more than one, and just shouting “hometown/home city/home country” is a freebie. That’s already there. So, don’t just fall back on that all the time, eh? Besides, a lot of place-names will sound downright goofy if you shout them. Imagine some guy running into battle roaring “OXFORD!!!” in a posh British accent. You snickered, admit it.

Germany and Russia are both cheaters in this regard, of course, since you can just throw a dart at a map of either country and have an excellent chance of a warlike place-name.

I hope from here I don’t have to tell you that since you’re using actual words, those words should say something about your faction that isn’t readily apparent, THE AIEL. Sorry, sorry. I love the Aiel as a culture but as warriors they bore me to tears, and also make -1000% sense as the most combat-effective faction. That’s a subject for its own article, though. Possibly even the next article!

Anyway: warcries that actually say things. “For the ______” or “For the _____ of ______” “The ________ of ______”… these formats are fine. They function. If you put cool enough things in those blanks, they’ll still be good. But you’ve already limited yourself by starting with “For the” or just “the” when you could’ve said anything! “Rending glory!” “Mayhem!” “Red abandon!” “Death beckons!” “Iron’s hymn!” “Bloody justice!” “Her Order stands!” “A final dawn!”

…see? Not to say all of those are gold, but there are a lot more options than just “For the Thing!” If, that is, you’re not trying too hard to cast your warriors in a paladinesque light of moral superiority. Because: warriors fight. Warriors kill. Warriors die. These are the things which define them first and foremost. They may fight, kill and die for good or bad causes, but they’re born and raised for violence and at the end of the day, that’s what unites them all.

That’s what warcries are about: expressing a culture’s unique spin on the true oldest human trade. Don’t shy from that. Lean into it, and see where the charge takes you. Also, you’ll end up with much more quotable lines.

3 thoughts on “Warcries: The Coolest Thing Fantasy Barely Uses

  1. Pretty good insight, really liked this piece. It’s a pity my story’s set in Japan, and samurais and battlecries, well, let’s stop here lol… Otherwise would have definitely made up one after reading this

    Liked by 1 person

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