Quakers in Spain

I wrote part of this essai in response to an Internet meme, ‘Ten things I hate in a book’, which I got from Glenda Larke by way of Sherwood Smith and others. It first appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006. I have had requests for this material since; but the first few parts of the series are, in my maturer judgement, sadly inadequate, for I only gradually relaxed and began to speak my mind at full length as I went on. Here it is, updated, extended, and (I hope) brought into better harmony with the whole.


 

Prose style is an endless source trouble for writers in the imaginative genres, and fantasy above all. There is always the temptation to write in an entirely modern, journalistic style. Such a style is like an Interstate highway in America: smooth, fast, easy to travel, with no dangerous or distracting bumps. The drawback is that you can drive from coast to coast without ever really seeing anything but the road itself. Such styles and such roads are good for getting to your destination in a hurry. But experienced tourists, and experienced readers, find it more fun to take the scenic route.

If you are a writer of some ambition, then, you will try to build a scenic route with your prose. Ursula K. Le Guin’s superb essay, ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,’ is all about this difficult art. It has every virtue, alas, except that of being in print. It used to be collected in The Language of the Night, which I strongly recommend, if you can manage to buy, beg, or borrow a copy. If not, you and I will have to worry along together the best we can.

As Le Guin says, what you want in imaginative writing, and in fantasy particularly, is distancing from the ordinary. The scenic route had better show the reader some scenery that she will not see in her daily commute. In fantasy, part of this effect is inherent in the subject-matter. A story about dragons is not likely to be mistaken for the morning newspaper. But if you want to achieve the best effects, if you really want to sweep the reader off her feet and carry her into your imagined world, you need a style to match the substance. You will want to describe your freshly imagined world with fresh and imaginative language, or else you may put your reader to sleep with the very story that is meant to awaken her sense of wonder.

 

How, then, do you build a scenic route out of words? It is an easy trick to come up with a stilted and unnatural way of telling a story; and all you will achieve by it is to sound stilted and unnatural. The real trick is to come up with a style that is not quite like ordinary language: different enough to convey that this is another world, another culture, but ordinary enough that it does not get in the way of comprehension. The same technique has often been used to portray other countries and cultures in the real world; particularly, to give the flavour of a foreign language, with its own set of idioms and cultural assumptions, without actually writing in a foreign language.

Ernest Hemingway was an early master of this technique, but also an early failure; oddly enough, his failures came after his successes. While still in his twenties, he perfected an entirely new narrative prose style, an etiolated strain of which has become the default ‘transparent’ style of the modern American novelist. Of all the bizarre experimental styles of the 1920s, from Joyce’s glossolalia to Stein’s commaphobia, Hemingway’s was the only experiment that really succeeded. It doesn’t matter; he paid the rent for them all. Unfortunately, he soon degenerated into self-parody. A man’s wit may outlive his wits, in which case he will retain the ability to write arch imitations of his best work long after time and tide and whiskey have washed away the rest of his talents.

Alas, Hemingway’s judgement went the way of his skill, for the style he chose to imitate in his parodic senescence was not the style of the successful experiment. It was the laboured and mannered style of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the purpose of which is to make you think that the book has been translated from Spanish with painful literalness. So he peppered his prose with irrelevant Spanish palabras that you are expected to know the meaning of, not because they have no English equivalents, but because, you know, people speaking Spanish occasionally throw in a really really Spanish word just to remind you that they are not speaking English or Cantonese. He also makes much use of Spanish idioms translated word for word, no import how unnaturally the sentence puts itself in consequence. He makes sure, once in a while, after giving you a phrase in English, to repeat himself in Spanish, y relanzarse en castellano. And he uses thou and thee with wild inconsistency, often forgetting and settling for you, and just as often using thee as the nominative case — an error that he probably picked up from the Quakers. Quakers in Spain, forsooth! There are words in Spanish for people who do this kind of thing, and we do not have such words in English, but I will not instruct you in obscenity by repeating them here. Sinverguenza is one of the milder ones.

The effect of all this is to persuade you that the book you are reading was written by an idiot savant who is intimately acquainted with foreign idioms, but does not know how to form English contractions. In a short book, like The Old Man and the Sea, it is just tolerable, but at greater length, or done inexpertly by other hands, it descends rapidly into schtick.

There is a place for this technique, but not much of one. It is appropriate to dialogue, not récit, and at that, to the speech of characters who are either represented as speaking a foreign language (to the narrator, that is), or as foreigners trying to speak the narrator’s language with imperfect success. A little goes a long way. It is particularly unsuitable for long passages when the subtextual ‘foreign’ language is itself fictitious. Tolkien skirted the bounds with his gobbets of undigested Elvish, but at least his Elves, when speaking English, spoke English (a peculiarly archaic and cadenced English, which suited them, and sorted well with the things they had to say) and not a tortured attempt at Elf-glish.

 

A variation on this is the faux archaism one finds all too often in fantasy. Archaic words and turns of speech can create that distance from the ordinary; but ‘like bicycling and computer programming’, as Le Guin says, you have to know how to do it. An archaic style has to be built from the ground up; and since nobody speaks archaic literary English nowadays, it has to be built up from encyclopaedic reading. Two twentieth-century fantasy writers did this perfectly: E. R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany. If you want to see how they did it, and what effects can be achieved in setting the tone for a fantasy by language alone, I recommend that you read Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros and Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. (I rejoice to report that Ouroboros is now available in an ebook edition for just one U.S. dollar.)

But if you don’t do the trick perfectly, you risk losing the knowledgeable reader; and if you try to fake it, you might as well not do it at all. Bad archaism takes us straight to that other fantasy world (they call it Hollywood), where Tony Curtis made himself a laughingstock by saying in a thick Bronx accent, ‘Yonder lies de castle of my fodda.’ In fact, Curtis never said any such thing; the story originated with Debbie Reynolds, who was misquoting one of his lines from Son of Ali Baba, with the full and malicious intention, I am afraid, of making him look like a fool. But the butchered version of the line became instantly famous, and still gets a knowing snigger from fantasy fans, and from people who think they are film buffs. Don’t set yourself up to be the butt of such a joke. Unlike Tony Curtis, you might actually deserve it.

If you insist on rejecting this excellent advice, you can fadge up your ‘archaic’ dialogue the way David Eddings did in The Belgariad. Just take a completely modern, colloquial, slovenly speaking style, and do a global search-and-replace to swap in three or four archaic-sounding words. The worst example I have ever seen was on a store-front sign, advertising ‘Ye Olde Video Shoppe’ — the perfect place for all those people who wanted to rent authentic 16th-century films. Eddings’ technique was not much better. This is a random, but not unrepresentative, sample from Castle of Wizardry:

“Food hath been prepared, your Majesty,” Mandorallen assured him. “Our Asturian brothers have provided goodly numbers of the king’s deer — doubtless obtained lawfully — though I chose not to investigate that too closely.”

It is not the language of a hero, even a minor hero, but of a cop on the take in a 1970s TV drama. Change hath back into has, and goodly numbers back into a lot or plenty, and doubtless back into no doubt, and you have expunged every trace of archaic English. As Le Guin says, ‘You can’t clip Pegasus’ wings that easily — not if he has wings.’ Mandorallen’s dialogue is simply a fake, a cheap knockoff ordered straight from Ye Olde Baloney Factory.

So what’s wrong with baloney? In this case, it wastes words, and it does nothing to convey the idea that Mandorallen comes from a different culture. If you are going to make people talk strangely in a book, whether they are Spaniards in For Whom the Bell Tolls or Arendish knights in a cheapjack epic fantasy, there ought to be a cultural reason for them to do it. The cultural value of archaic English was described admirably by J. R. R. Tolkien:

Real archaic English is far more terse than modern; also many of the things said could not be said in our slack and often frivolous idiom.

Mandorallen has the slack and frivolous modern idiom, with just enough archaic words sprinkled in to make it ludicrous. But then, Mandorallen himself is ludicrous, and is probably meant to be. Eddings dresses him up in the trappings of European chivalry, without understanding them in the slightest. They are either used as window-dressing, or brought in to make the characters look like fools. Everybody is summarily judged by the mores of middle-class America circa 1980, and everybody is found guilty, except the ingenue hero and his utterly spoilt love interest; those two never come into conflict with modern American culture, because they have as nearly as possible no culture at all.

In Eddings’ world, noblemen like Mandorallen spout highfalutin language about courtesy and courage and knightly duty, while starving their peasants to death and grinding their faces in the dust. Why? Because that’s just what noblemen do: ask any Connecticut Yankee. The idea that chivalry was real, that there were men who tried to live up to the highfalutin sentiments, is not even entertained as a falsehood.

To make doubly sure that his character will seem a complete blockhead, Eddings puts him in a country whose borders are fixed by the gods. There have been no wars except civil wars, no invasions, no reason to have a caste of mounted warriors or a feudal society, for the last five hundred years. Mandorallen’s old-fashioned ideals and old-fashioned language are put in the story for no better reason than to make him ridiculous. And that is a poor reason to put anything in a story, unless the story is a deliberate farce. The Belgariad is only an accidental farce. But I shall have more to say about that later.


Continued in ‘Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan’.

Comments

  1. deiseach says:

    Thank you for this, and yes, you have identified for me what was so irritating about David Eddings’ treatment of Arendia (God rest the man). He was trying (I think) sincerely to write chivalric characters, but unfortunately they came across as idiots because he had no understanding of the mindset. Cervantes did it better, in his satirical notion of a would-be knight crazed by reading the old romances and how such behaviour would be treated in the ‘modern’ or ‘real’ world, but Cervantes was writing at the end of the period when it had flowered, become over-blown, and finally fallen into decay.

    Eddings’ Mimbrates and Asturians should have been denizens of the High Middle Ages, but he couldn’t pull it off. He could do the Tushery and Wardour Street, but he couldn’t get his head round the world-view of such people, so for him they had to be (unintentional) hypocrites, adhering to an outmoded code of conduct which was an excuse for ludicrous duels. And naturally the nobles oppressed the peasants – what else would they do?

    He didn’t understand honour in that sense, and he made a conventional romantic triangle out of amour courtois; where he could have had Nerina an inspiration to Mandorallen as Beatrice was to Dante, instead he resolved it by convenient widowhood which meant they could marry and live happily ever after. Nothing wrong with that, and he wasn’t the worst writer of the type (I maintain “The Wheel of Time” takes the cake in that regard), but it is painfully obvious that he is a modern writing a modern’s notion of what such a world would and should be like.

  2. “ask any Connecticut Yankee”

    You know, the problem I always had with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is the POV: he’s just such a clod it’s obvious that he wouldn’t appreciate King Arthur’s court if it were everything its most starry-eyed admirer said it was, and would manage to describe it as clownish whatever it was really like. He would indeed have had no problems with the depiction.

  3. Partly but not entirely OT, one thing that jumped at me and hit me when I was reading your selection from Eddings is that he cannot possibly be in any way decently read about history – including the very period of history on which he tries to base his fantasies; otherwise he would know that there are such people as Asturians in the real world, that they inhabit a country called Asturias, and that the Asturias (the name should be treated as plural) were particularly significant, with strong overtones of fighting heroism and last stands, in that time when the early Middle Ages tended to turn into the Ages of Legend, and you got the Arthurs and the Rolands, the Alboins and the Pelayos. The Asturias were the last redoubt of Spanish and Visigoth Christianity in the face of conquering Islam, and their first king Pelayo or Pelagius can easily be seen as a legend in history like Arthur or Charlemagne or Alfted the Great. Now what is really bad about this is that this is not an obscure or very distant piece of history; it could be found by anyone who bothered to open any mediocre encyclopedia. It shows Eddings to be both scarily ignorant and not interested in learning. Of course, better men than Eddings are equally mired in ignorance and unwillingness to learn (I’m looking at YOU, Joss Whedon!), but they have escape hatches from the results of their folly that Eddings evidently does not have. And that should teach every one of us, talented or not, one simple thing: the textbook is your friend, and there is no such thing as too much learning, though plenty of not enough.

    • It could be that Eddings knew just enough about the Asturias to be dangerous. For all I know, he might have vaguely remembered the name as belonging to one of the (from his point of view) ridiculous little splinter kingdoms in northern Iberia before they became sensible and chummy and turned themselves into Spain.

      There is a habit of thought widespread among Americans (and some other people) which regards large, consolidated nation-states as inherently superior to small traditional states, and cannot comprehend why all the little nations don’t just give up their identities and form nice sensible unions. Judging by the maps of Eddings’ world in The Belgariad and The Malloreon, I think one could make a case that he indulged rather freely in that habit.

      • deiseach says:

        Also, writing for Americans. Yes, I’m shamelessly slandering the good citizens of the United States of America, but I see no problems with the idea that Eddings knew a bit about Asturias and the chivalric heritage and swiped it wholesale for his epic (just filing off the serial numbers by dropping the plural “s”) in the confident expectation that no-one would ever know.

        • I see one problem with it, and it’s the problem I mentioned in the essai: he so obviously knew nothing about the chivalric mindset, and sneered at the little he thought he knew. As a historical authority, this puts him on a level with Washington Irving pretending that mediaevals thought the world was flat: i.e., a damnable liar leading innocents to perdition with his lies.

      • And he got the gods to back him up.

  4. Mary: You have made the mistake of thinking of The Boss as any sort of hero, just because he is the first-person narrator. But he tells us himself just what he is right at the beginning: “I am an American. I was born and reared in Hartford, in the State of Connecticut—anyway, just over the river, in the country. So I am a Yankee of the Yankees—and practical; yes, and nearly barren of sentiment, I suppose—or poetry, in other words. My father was a blacksmith, my uncle was a horse doctor, and I was both, along at first. Then I went over to the great arms factory and learned my real trade; learned all there was to it; learned to make everything: guns, revolvers, cannon, boilers, engines, all sorts of labor-saving machinery.”

    Guns, revolvers, and cannon are indeed labor-saving machinery, if your business is mass murder, and that was indeed the Yankee’s business, as we discover in Chapter 42 and its successors. So, no, he is not a clod, he is an imperialist operating on the pretense of being a democrat.

  5. As for the Quaker use of thee, it was not peculiar to them. Just as you displaced ye, so thee displaced thou gradually during the Early Modern English period. The overall displacement of thee by you overtook this trend and prevented it from running to its end except in “plain speech”, where thee is is the singular and you are is the plural.

    • ‘…thee displaced thou gradually during the Early Modern English period.’

      Source, please? I have studied the history of the first- and second-person Indo-European pronouns (as Mark Twain would say) from Alpha to Omaha, and I have never encountered this particular claim before.

      • Here’s the relevant section of the OED3:

        3. For the subjective pronoun thou. Cf. me pron.1 5.
        Common as predicate or part of a compound subject, and following conjunctions such as as and than.

        In later use chiefly Eng. regional (esp. south. and midl.): see Eng. Dial. Dict. (1905) VI. 81/2 and C. Upton et al. Surv. Eng. Dial.: Dict. & Gram. (1994) 486; also in use among Quakers (see etymological note at thou pron. and n.1) and more generally as an archaism.

        Some Middle English and regional quots. may exemplify representations of an unstressed form of thou, or reflect merger of such forms with the object forms: see further discussion in etymology section.

        ?c1225 (▸?a1200) Ancrene Riwle (Cleo. C.vi) (1972) 72 Wite þe nu ful wel, his eare is eauer towart þe.
        c1300 (▸?c1225) King Horn (Laud) (1901) 732 (MED), Sone bote þe flette [c1300 Cambr. þu flitte], Wit swerd hy wole þe hette.
        c1330 (▸?c1300) Reinbrun (Auch.) in J. Zupitza Guy of Warwick (1891) 649 (MED), No forþer þow ne gon, Boute þe ȝeue me bataile anon.
        c1400 (▸c1378) Langland Piers Plowman (Trin. Cambr. B.15.17) (1975) B. x. l. 132 (MED), Lord, yworshiped be þe.
        c1450 (▸c1370) Chaucer A.B.C (Cambr. Ff.5.30) (1878) l. 108 O tresoreere of bountee to mankynde, þee whom god ches to mooder for humblesse.
        c1480 (▸a1400) St. Thomas Apostle 617 in W. M. Metcalfe Legends Saints Sc. Dial. (1896) I. 146 Þe venys þat my god wrath wil be with me.
        a1590 Marriage Wit & Wisdom (1846) 12 Didest the nere se man before?
        1598 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 1 i. ii. 113 Howe agrees the Diuell and thee about thy soule.
        1608 Shakespeare King Lear iv. 179 And yet I would not bee thee Nuncle.
        1687 W. Hitchcock in Jrnl. Friends’ Hist. Soc. 4 74 If thee canst sell 250 acres of it & ye house.
        1735 P. Collinson Let. 24 Jan. in J. Bartram Corr. (1992) 4 Thee has nothing more to do than to gather branches or spriggs of the plants..with their Seed Vessels fully formed.
        1797 A. M. Bennett Beggar Girl V. ii. 63 Thee hadst been sucking the monkey.
        1819 Byron Mazeppa iv. 101 None Can less have said or more have done Than thee, Mazeppa!
        1852 H. B. Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin I. xiii. 200 ‘What does thee want, father?’ said Rachel.
        1859 ‘G. Eliot’ Adam Bede I. 11 Thee’t like thy dog, Gyp.
        1861 E. Waugh Birtle Carter’s Tale 15 An’ mind te tells no lies abeawt th’ lad i’ thy talk.
        1922 D. A. Mackenzie Cromarty Dial. in Rymour Club Misc. III. 76 ‘Ar are thee gae’an?
        1964 Friend 10 Apr. 453/1 Perhaps thee has noticed the comment on this point in our Friends Journal on February 15.
        1986 Lakeland Dial. Sept. 31 Is thee an’ me marras, than? she ax’t.
        1999 B. Griffith in Zippy Ann. (2000) No. 1. 89 (caption) , Pray Sir, what meanest thee?

  6. Wendy S Delmater says:

    Mr Cowan, I assume you are responding to Mary’s post. Imperialists? Mass murderers? Oh, goodness, you certainly are throwing around some rather strong opinions about that Connecticut Yankee. Your comment tells me a little about what appears to be your intellectual framework: your presupposition is that a socialist utopia would be So Much Better. Mr. Simon is not of that opinion, and your comments will never dissuade him. Just ask the victims of the 1932-33 Ukraine “Famine,” the Holodomor, perpetrated by the USSR in the name of a socialist utopia. Or the victims of Mao, or the victims of Germany’s National Socialist Party in the 1940s. Tom, and I, are not of the opinion that the Connecticut Yankee was anything more than an interesting literary character, not a jumping-off point for a political diatribe.

    But I digress. This site is about writing, not about politics or the size of your vocabulary.

    • Your comment tells me a little about what appears to be your intellectual framework: your presupposition is that a socialist utopia would be So Much Better.

      You are entirely mistaken, unless you believe that John Quincy Adams was a socialist and Benjamin Franklin a utopian.

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