When I filled out Brandon Sanderson’s website contact form, I did it in the most bardic way I could: by unfurling a metaphorical scroll, standing in the town square, and shouting: “DO YOU HAVE A MOMENT TO TALK ABOUT BARDS?!”
And while he may not have had time to spin a tale longer than a few sentences, he did indeed respond with a quick thought: “I think every writer has a little bit of a bard in them, at heart. We’re showmen. So it’s no surprise to me that so many of them show up in our works, if under different names at times.”
Bards have an intangible oeuvre about them. There’s something intensely relatable about a traveling musician, performer, and storyteller that instills a bit of fantastical wanderlust in all of us. And it’s especially true for those of us who spend copious chunks of our time consuming fantasy or fantasy-adjacent content.
Despite their near-universal appeal and desire to entertain, however, bards have long been relegated to the sidelines or the background, playing supporting roles in stories about wizards and warriors who fit a more Arthurian vision of what a hero should be. Although they’re sweepingly featured as supporting cast members, bards have weaseled their way into the mainstream. And they’ve done it in an uncharacteristically quiet manner.
Welcome, reader, to the Bardic revolution.
What Makes A Bard?
Earlier this year, Tor published an excellent list of books that put bards in the spotlight. While it’s a fantastic look into bards as main characters, you may notice that it’s also…dated. The newest piece of media on the list is from 1988.
Since 1988, bards have evolved. They’ve changed to fit into the stories we tell in the present day. Bards manifest themselves as a different kind of hero, ones that make choices to set them apart from the martial and magical protagonists that seem to dominate fantasy lore. Removed from the medieval context that paints public perception of them, bards become something wholly unique and magnetic. As main characters, bards headline their own stories in ways more traditional heroes never could.
“Bards are my favorite ‘class’ for heroes because they’re the goofy/silly ones who don’t solve problems the same way as others. I was pretty excited about the idea of making an entire game about one because I hadn’t seen a game about that kind of hero before. (Turns out that there was at least one or two before, including ‘The Bard’s Tale,’ but they interpreted bards pretty differently from me…).”
That’s Greg Lobanov, creator of the video game Wandersong. “Wandersong is a musical adventure game where you play as a bard and use music to help people. You can explore and make music freely and things in the world react to your music in different ways,” he says.
If you haven’t played Wandersong, this is my plea for you to do so. It’s available on Steam, the Switch eShop, and Playstation Store.
Lobanov touches on a point that constantly recurred during my spelunking journey into the Bardic canon. Bards can solve problems in unconventional ways. They are capable of violence (Kvothe from The Kingkiller Chronicle is a prime example here), but they’ll often default to solutions that don’t cause direct harm to themselves or others. Wandersong executes this premise beautifully, pitting the player against puzzles and challenges that require a new method of problem-solving without the need for hacking and slashing.
It may not be the only definition that summons the image of a bard to mind, but it’s a good starting point. Bards approach their problems with diplomacy, performance, and charisma before they even consider violence as an option. And while there are plenty of characters in fantasy media that fit a more traditional Bardic bill–Jaskier from The Witcher, Thom from The Wheel of Time, Kvothe, or even Chong and the Nomads from Avatar: The Last Airbender–the Bardic revolution we’re experiencing today welcomes a looser category of main character that allows for distinct and delightful new stories.
The Bardic Revolution: Changing An Age-Old Tune
The Bardic archetype has long been mired in expectations and tradition. Only recently have bards undergone a metamorphosis and become unrecognizable to their minstrel-esque brethren. But the transformation takes shape differently depending on where you find the bard in question. In the cases I’ll discuss here, creators either change the way a bard is used or the way a bard looks, feels, and acts. In other words, the Bardic Revolution exists in two parts: one of function and one of general personality/character.
Melodic Shift: Using Bards In New Ways
In Wandersong, for example, the protagonist is, for our purposes here, a “traditional” bard. Rather than fuel the archetype, however, Wandersong adds a distinct utility to him. The bard transcends the stereotypical “musical sidekick,” becoming the main character of the story.
Greg Lobanov, Wandersong creator, explains: “When I started building Wandersong, the first thing was making the music ‘wheel’ instrument the player makes music with throughout the game. From there the whole game was designed around making music with that wheel and how it interacted with things; violence and hurting things just didn’t fit/come into the picture when I approached it that way. But we definitely made a point of addressing that in the story, and in how your bard relates to other types of heroes.”
Wandersong flips our concept of a “traditional” bard on its head, creating a character that looks and feels similar to what we expect of a bard. But the game also gives him an unprecedented utility, giving the bard space to succeed in ways these types of heroes have not in the past.
Lobanov’s influences shed some light on how he molded Wandersong. He mentions a few of his inspirations for the game: “Steven Universe, Over the Garden Wall, Earthbound. None of those have bards, I guess. But all very musical, and I see Steven especially as a very bard-like character/hero especially in the early seasons where he’s the weak link of the team.”
“Bards always see themselves as the main characters,” Lobanov says. “But their nonstandard role and strong personality tend to make them fit better as a sidekick or comedy relief. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating situation because there are so few stories that center that kind of hero, so there’s no model to follow, and that makes it harder to make your own without being creative. I enjoy that kind of challenge deeply, so that’s partially why I was drawn to do it.”
In a way, bards represent the inherent musicality of the stories in which they exist. They reflect the melodic, ever-changing nature of fantasy worlds. And finally, with games and media like Wandersong, they are getting a much-deserved stint in the spotlight.
There is, of course, a risk to giving bards more time in the limelight. Lobanov says: “To be honest, I think part of the appeal of bards is that they are the ‘off-center’ choice, the goofy sidekick, the ‘little guy.’ I love stories that center that kind of personality, but if it became the mainstream norm then maybe it wouldn’t be as cool anymore. We’d all be thinking ‘man, I’m so sick of these musicians and jokesters solving every problem. How about a guy who just punches stuff?!’”
Everything in moderation doesn’t exactly sound like a Bardic motto, but he’s got a point. However, there’s a second segment of the Bardic Revolution that brings bards centerstage and shirks conventional wisdom about who or what they are.
Key Change: Reinventing The Bard
Sure, it’s fun to see Jaskier trotting alongside Geralt and Roach, plucking a tune and workshopping a song. Watching Kvothe earn his pipes elicits heavy anticipation and creates a moment of pure, musical tension. But this is the Bardic Revolution we’re talking about, and clever twists on long-lived tropes (though fun and engaging in their own right) simply won’t do.
Instead, let’s take a look at Netflix’s Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. An under-the-radar gem that ran for three seasons totaling 30 episodes, the series gives us a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy hybrid tale for tweens that has long-lasting appeal and, in my opinion, one of the best new bards in recent memory.
Kipo’s titular character emerges from her burrow–an underground bunker sheltering humans who fled to escape gargantuan mega mutants–to find that the world she learned about underground isn’t exactly as threatening as her burrow-mates would have her believe. It’s still dangerous, though. Giant mega mutants roam the surface, as do smaller mutants who’ve developed the power of speech. As Kipo befriends a few surface-dwelling humans, those new friends paint a picture of the above-ground world that simply doesn’t resonate with her. Wolf (and to some degree Benson) encourages her to take a cautious, stealthy approach to any problem, and then to fight when threatened. Instead, from the very first episode, Kipo opts for diplomacy and music as a unifying force.
Some situations seem to beg for violence, yet Kipo holds back. She finds the common ground between the warring parties (sometimes including her own ragtag cadre). She uses music to show them they don’t constantly need to be at odds.
But Kipo isn’t traveling the world playing taverns for a stray coin here or there. Instead, her Bardic nature is part of the fabric of the show. It’s a tool in her arsenal, so she isn’t reduced to an archetype. She can and will use violence, which for spoiler reasons I won’t elaborate on here, but she almost always strives to resolve her problems with words, kindness, and music.
And that’s just the character. Kipo as a show infuses music at every turn. The production team selects background songs for fights, chases, and action scenes that fit so well they rival shows like Cowboy Bebop. Factions of mutants each have their own style. My personal favorites are Snakes who play hair metal and Lumbercats who play songs reminiscent of a tune that might reverberate through the halls of a tavern in LOTR mid-feast.
Kipo showcases her identity through her musical storytelling. She uses music to connect with humans and mutants of the surface. To most of the surface dwellers, her approach is novel and intriguing, if somewhat offputting. And that opens up new avenues for storytelling. Kipo makes friends with those anyone else would instantly profile as an enemy. She forms alliances where once such a relationship was hopeless. She teaches the audience that there’s more than one way to craft their story and that everyone is living their own personal tale. Kipo melds traditional Bardic qualities with a kindhearted sincerity that carves out a new niche for the archetype.
Kipo’s showrunners, creators, writers, and entire crew seem to understand that the Bardic label doesn’t have to mean a singular character who plays songs and busks at local watering holes. Music is part of Kipo just as it is part of the bards we know and love from more traditional stories.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts also represents the uncharacteristic quiet matter in which the Bardic Revolution weaves its way through pop culture. Seasons 1, 2, and 3 dropped in January, June, and October 2020, respectively, with little fanfare. The series has enjoyed a hushed popularity since. But, to be ultra-clear, you should watch Kipo, just as you should play Wandersong, if you’re at all intrigued by bards. Both titles approach bards (and various other themes) with a nuance rarely seen in blockbuster media.
Bards By The Book
I’ve leaned on TV and video games here because newer forms of media spark new ways of telling Bardic stories. The respected fantasy novels of old and modern sword and sorcery books feature bards in spades, though many veer into the traditional territory I’ve described above. Still, that Bardic magnetism is strong even in Bards of a more cookie-cutter ilk, so the Quill to Live team and I compiled a list of some of our favorites.
- Jaskier/Dandelion (The Witcher)
- Thom (Wheel of Time)
- Kvothe (Kingkiller Chronicle)
- The Bardati (The Greatcoats)
- The Argosi (Spellslinger)
- Wit (The Cosmere)
- Gurney Halleck (Dune)
- Heshai and others (The Long Price Quartet)
- Devin and others (Tigana)
- Croaker and Murgen (The Black Company)
Books obviously require a deft touch when it comes to including bards. In a strictly written medium, bards can be tough to crack. But the authors responsible for the works above do a bang-up job. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicle, for example, has lyrical prose. It’s the kind of writing that feels poetic and epic at once as Kvothe’s tale weaves its way through a world that rarely offers kindness, and even then usually in return for something else. Music becomes Kvothe’s way of navigating hardship, which in turn helps him define his place in the world. And Rothfuss writes with this in mind.
In The Witcher series, Jaskier plays a tag-along role to Geralt, writing tunes that embellish the witcher’s deeds and make him a living legend (Fans of the Netflix adaptation will no doubt know “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” which gives off extreme bardic energy that author Andrzej Sapkowski skillfully weaves into his prose). Sapkowski shunts Jaskier into the sidekick role, but the bard also serves as an exuberant and carefree foil to Geralt’s stoic assassin. Sapkowski’s primary bard is an excellent case study; Jaskier highlights how bards are storytellers. They often distort reality to make it seem more whimsical or fantastical than it actually is, washing away the mundane things that dilute everyday experiences. This ability can border on supernatural in the way it shapes public perception of Geralt. It’s almost a magical power in and of itself. Bards can make excellent main characters because of this facet. They take the real, the dull, and polish it until it shines. Because prose offers no immediate visual or aural output, authors have to do some heavy lifting to characterize their bards. As fantasy readers, we’re just lucky writers are so damned good at it.
If you have a bardic book recommendation, drop it in the comments!
This is just the beginning. We’ve played the first few notes. The audience has stopped stirring, all eyes are on the stage as the symphony of the Bardic Revolution takes hold.
The days of bards who “fit the bill” are fading fast, paving the way for characters like Wandersong’s musical protagonist or Kipo to redefine what it means to be a bard and a hero at the same time.
And while the old flock of bards will still pop up from time to time, we’re still in the midst of a Bardic Revolution. It may be pianissimo right now, but the crescendo is coming, and bard-savvy creators are leading the charge.
If you enjoyed this article, check out Wandersong and Greg Lobanov’s latest creation, Chicory. Also, watch Kipo ASAP.