Teaching Pegasus to crawl

The fourth essai in a series, following ‘Tyrion 13:4’. The original appeared on LiveJournal in May, 2006.


 

As I said earlier, the choice of an appropriate prose style for a fantasy tale is a decision fraught with peril. We are tempted to choose a style that will convey the proper sense of wonder and adventure, and the air of old times and alien cultures; or would, if we only had the skill to pull it off. If we lack that skill, our stories will sound rather like an untrained singer trying to do the lead in Rigoletto — ambitious, but inept. And this will get us laughed at.

It is safe to say that none of us enjoy being laughed at. So for perhaps forty years past, there has been a reaction in the opposite direction; and I am afraid that is an even worse error. The sensible reaction would be to learn how to produce the effects that we wanted; the real reaction, for far too many writers, has been simply to give up trying and settle for a bland quotidian style. Their stories are inept without being ambitious. And this is worse, for unless they are very lucky, it gets them ignored and forgotten. They may truly be hearing the horns of Elfland in their heads; but they cannot play that music. What they do play is a tuneless mishmash compounded of slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog.

Most of what I could say about this has been said with magnificent wit and force in ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’, which I referred to earlier. The language of fantasy should be appropriate to fantasy; the speech of heroes should be heroic; the sound of the lame excuse should not be heard in that land. This is the law and the prophets: all else is gloss. But I should like to dwell upon the gloss awhile, as the fantasy field has changed enormously since ‘Poughkeepsie’ was published, and by no means all for the better.

After some preliminary rumblings, the field of fantasy became a real commercial genre very suddenly. I have written about the Fantasy Big Bang of 1977, when the field as we know it emerged full-grown, swinging a sword and swashing a buckler, from the dog-eared notebooks of the late J. R. R. Tolkien. This is an exaggeration, but not a very gross one. Besides The Silmarillion, that year marked the appearance of three first novels and a film that permanently changed the commercial and critical climate in fantasy publishing.

It also marked the official annexation of Elfland by Poughkeepsie, though the elves have been fighting a valiant rearguard action in the remoter parts of the country. In short, 1977 was when Fantasyland opened for business at its present location. And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home.

In Northrop Frye’s taxonomy, as propounded in Anatomy of Criticism, the plots and characters of fantasy normally occupy the levels of Romance and High Mimesis, with occasional excursions into Myth. But from 1977 on, it became usual to write their stories, and still worse their dialogue, in the ordinary novelistic language of Low Mimesis and Irony. The strain is too much for the structure to bear. Where Aragorn and Gandalf, or Eddison’s four Lords of Demonland, spoke like heroes and behaved accordingly, too many of their successors come across as over-aged adolescents playing at knights and dragons. It is no calumny to say that the tone of the average commercial fantasy novel nowadays is not much above the tone of the average Dungeons & Dragons campaign. This is no accident, for D&D players are the most identifiable and exploitable demographic for fantasy publishers.

I have played a lot of D&D in my time, as it happens, and what I observe time and again is players who Just Don’t Get It. They are ostensibly playing heroes, or at least quasi-heroic adventurers, but they give these characters a kind of life that betrays their utter unfamiliarity with either heroism or adventure. Some time ago, I dabbled in Third Edition D&D after an absence of many years. One party in which I participated was, or rather played, a group of irregulars in the service of a baron whose domain was beset by ogres, pirates, and assorted menaces from the omnium gatherum of the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master was an ex-serviceman, familiar with the bureaucratic organization of modern armies, and utterly ignorant of the deeply personal and emotional loyalties that characterized the feudal system. Though we were, sword for sword, the most valuable retainers the baron had, we were never actually permitted to meet him, and seldom even saw the captain of his men-at-arms. We were dealt with summarily by a mere lieutenant, briefed, debriefed, conferred with in map-rooms, and generally treated with less courtesy and ceremony than a mediaeval king would have shown to the merest beggar. Kings touched commoners for the king’s evil, but our lord the baron did not touch commoners at all. Corporate Poughkeepsie, with its disgusting rudeness and indifference, and the layers of insulation built up to protect every person of importance or even self-importance from the importunities of the public, was in full possession of an ostensible fortress of Elfland.

All this showed in our DM’s use of language, which I shall mercifully spare you; and the like attitude, with much less excuse, shows daily in the pages of modern commercial fantasy. At about this point in her argument, Ms. Le Guin gave some more or less random examples of dialogue in great works of fantasy, and one less great. I should like to offer some beginnings, since that is where the modern, groomed, workshopped author is taught to display his very finest wares:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’

This is Tolkien’s version of Poughkeepsie, but already in the distance we can hear the horns of Elfland tuning for their first fanfare. The events described are entirely pedestrian, a birthday party and some small-town gossip, but they are fraught with significance. In a way, the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is merely the rigorous and complete exploration of the ‘trouble’ that came from Bilbo’s ‘unfair’ lease of youth and riches.

Note that Tolkien, whose literary influences were nearly all dead before 1900, is not at all afraid to begin with sixty years of backstory, pithily summarized, or to burden the reader with récit instead of a cinematic ‘teaser’. This is how such things were normally done in the days when literature was not deformed by the perceived need (and impossible desire) to compete with television on television’s home ground. I believe that we shall yet see a return of the novelistic novel, as opposed to the novel that tries to be a faithful replica of an unmade movie. But that is not, generally speaking, what we are getting at present:

The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.

That is the opening paragraph of The Sword of Shannara, one of the Big Bang fantasies of 1977. Or rather, it is part of the opening paragraph, for we are treated to several more lines of visual description of the mysterious Mr. Ohmsford. Although Brooks’s first novel has been mercilessly derided as a mere pastiche of The Lord of the Rings, it is in fact something very much more (and less): a translation of LOTR from epic English into modern pedestrian novelese. It is the Fantasyland version of Tolkien.

See how the story opens with an attempt at cinematic description. Everything is seen through the camera eye, beginning with a long establishing shot of the countryside, then closing in on the weary figure trudging through the landscape, ending with an extreme closeup focused tightly on the eyes. It is true that everything is seen as through a gel filter, darkly, for Brooks’s descriptive powers are not great, and if we form a vivid image of a countryside from these vague cues, it redounds to our credit and not his. ‘Touching the corners of the land’ is strictly meaningless, as nasty a bit of mock-poetic trumpery as you could hope to find among the sham beams of a Tudor pub in Peoria. The bit about the restless energy revealed by Flick’s wide gray eyes is simply a cheat, and a cheat of a particular kind that I should like to discuss in more detail.

For this is the very essence of the Fantasyland style: to swaddle the reader in visual description, engaging her mind (I assume a female reader for convenience’ sake, as the writer I am dissecting is male) in the mild trance state most conducive to escapist reading, while communicating the real gist of the matter in windy abstractions. Nobody could possibly see restless energy burning in a man’s eyes as he trudges wearily down a hillside trail, even if there were somebody there to look for it. (There is not; Flick is alone at this point, except for the omnipresent camera eye.) What we have is a purely subjective and fanciful opinion about Flick’s character, passed off as physical description and therefore as fact. If a character formed such an impression of Flick’s eyes, the reader would know where she stands. She would know it was an opinion, no more reliable or well-informed than the person who made it, and from this she could learn not only about Flick but about his observer, and the relationship between them. As it stands, she learns only that Terry Brooks wants her to think of Flick as a dynamo of hidden energies, without showing him doing anything remotely energetic, let alone dynamic.

Le Guin observed that a fantasy writer’s true quality shows best in his dialogue. It takes three full pages of Flick’s solo trudgery before we come to the first line of dialogue in the story:

The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being. With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long, thin dagger at his waist. Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly.

‘Wait a moment, friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.’

When two strangers cross paths in a wood, and one wishes to ask the other for directions, he does not customarily introduce himself by sneaking up within arm’s length and doing his best impression of a Black Rider. No indeed: accosting the other man from a distance and asking the way to Poughkeepsie is the generally accepted thing. It’s a fake scare, followed by fake reassurance. Again we have the cloudy attempts at description (‘great, black stone’), merely to give the author a plausible defence against the charge of ‘telling, not showing’. And again the meat of the matter, such as it is, is told and not shown, an opinion enforced by pure auctorial fiat. ‘A strong, yet reassuring voice’ could sound like anything. We are told that Flick was reassured by it, but we really have no idea why.

By the bye, at this point, four pages into The Sword of Shannara, we have got considerably less distance with the story than Tolkien took us with the three short paragraphs that begin The Lord of the Rings. The Fantasyland writer is nothing if not verbose.

Another of the Big Bang fantasies was Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock. It is difficult today to believe that Hancock’s overgrown fairytale was highly acclaimed in its day and sold over a million copies. It is very much a book of the Seventies, and you can hear deliberate echoes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the opening:

On the morning of his leaving, he erased all his tracks from that part of heaven, carefully stacked new star branches in a neat pile behind the entrance in the dark mouth of the universe, and sadly began the thousand-year trip down the side of the sky that closely resembled a large mountain. If you looked at it that way. If you didn’t, it might seem very much like walking out your own front door and down the steps.

It is an accomplishment, I suppose, to be both twee and portentous at the same time, but that combination is Hancock’s speciality. Our unnamed character is a Bear, the Bear in fact, a stock anthropomorphic fairytale Bear of the sort that has been familiar to everyone since Robert Southey seeded Elfland with three of the species; but he is also the reincarnation of an ancient hero. So we are told in the subsequent pages, though we never learn just what he did that was so heroic that it would still be remembered in the twilight of the ages. Again we see this curious tendency to show trivialities and baldly tell (or even omit) essentials. In this case, it is overlaid with a New Age mystical conceit, for the Bear’s journey is, of course, his reincarnation to fight the good fight once more. The tone is more juvenile than that of Shannara, but the cinematic pretensions and windy vagueness are much the same.

Now, I do not mean to give the impression that a cinematic, novelistic technique (derived, by the way, from Hemingway’s successful experiment referred to earlier) is always inappropriate for fantasy. Special circumstances can justify it, as in the third of the Big Bang novels:

She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way.

The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!”

Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!

Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own admission, is a notorious over-writer, but there are no wasted words here. Nothing is spent on the setting, beyond the mention of the store and sidewalk; we recognize this as a street zoned commercial, part of our own world. We have immediate action, immediate conflict, and are faced at once with an urgent question. Why is Thomas Covenant subjected to such execration merely for walking down the street? What ought he to be ashamed of? Just as Bilbo’s neighbours adumbrated the whole plot of LOTR in a sneering line of dialogue, the woman from the store (whom we never see again) sets up the essential conflict that drives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It is a powerful and engaging opening, though Covenant soon squanders the capital of sympathy that his author laid in for him. The action is described cinematically, if you like, but it is action and not impressionistic claptrap about the countryside. Like Tolkien, unlike Brooks and Hancock, Donaldson puts his subjective judgements where they properly belong, in the minds and mouths of characters who are capable of making those judgements inside the story. The narrator does not intrude at all.

But this exception, after all, works because Thomas Covenant really is a man from Poughkeepsie, or somewhere distressingly like it. The apparatus of the twentieth-century novel is appropriate to his tale, because he is a twentieth-century man, and his tale is about the head-on collision between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Donaldson has described the Covenant books as a kind of inverse of Idylls of the King. Tennyson’s masterpiece is the tale of how King Arthur was destroyed by a world full of petty and self-seeking men; Donaldson’s debut is about a petty and self-seeking man who finds redemption in a world full of King Arthurs. The tone is often ironic, in Frye’s usage of the term, because Covenant is an ironic hero. He speaks fluent Poughkeepsie, and the characters of the Land to which he is transported speak a highly idiosyncratic dialect pregnant with the unmistakable tones of Elfland.

One more example, and I shall leave the matter alone. This is not from the Big Bang, but from the monstrously long Fantasyland novel that fully assimilated and imitated all its predecessors. All the yardwork and busywork, all the Extruded Book Product from the Old Baloney Factory, is summed up in this one encyclopaedic tale, and the beginning strikes the note with uncanny accuracy:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow.

Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.

This is Fantasyland in a nutshell. We have the cod philosophizing of Hancock, perhaps improved upon, certainly intensified, by the Liberal Application of Capital Letters. We have the blatant cribs from Tolkien, the Third Age and the Misty Mountains. We have a panoramic camera shot of some very unsatisfactory and out-of-focus scenery, the burden of which is simply the screenwriter’s ‘Exterior Fantasyland, day’. We do not yet, it is true, have any auctorial opinions about Rand al’Thor fobbed off on us as physical description, but we may confidently guess that we will not be deprived of that amenity for long.

Robert Jordan has rounded up all the usual suspects, and they all do exactly the Poughkeepsian duty that every right-thinking reader has learnt to expect. And he has done it without getting us any distance at all with the story. It takes him a full page to tell us that Rand’s cloak is flapping in the wind. That may not be good writing, but at least it is an authentic sample of the long, slow slog to come. If nothing else, we can praise Jordan for truth in advertising. He has not only clipped Pegasus’ wings, but broken his legs as well, and will spend the next ten thousand pages teaching him to crawl. It would be so unacceptably Elflandish to let him soar.

Comments

  1. This post makes me sad — though it was also interesting to see three series which I’ve read through the lens of many years of learning to write my own stories. I remember enjoying Shannara as a kid. Maybe I didn’t know any better. I read the first few Wheel of Time books, but gave up on it. Now they both look vague and fuzzy, to me. Overblown, yes. I want to do better than that, in my own writing.

    Thomas Covenant, though, I knew that series had left a mark on me though I’d forgotten what it was. I was thinking of it, recently, when I finished my own fantasy epic. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Welcome to Bondwine, and thanks for the comment!

      I’m always interested to hear about (and from) someone else who has been through the process of writing a fantasy epic, and seeing what they’ve come up with. (Though I am lamentably behind on my fiction reading; I seem to spend my time snuffing up dusty old books by political economists and extinct Greeks these days.) Is it Disciple you’re talking about, or have you got another one that you are referring to? (I took a peek at your blog.)

      • Yes, it’s Disciple. I got to the last movement (Part VI) and was feeling the pressure of delivering a sufficiently “big” ending with sufficiently kick-ass magical combat. My mind kept slipping back to the end of the first Thomas Covenant series even though I read it so long ago I only have a vague impression of awesomeness. I probably should re-read it before I start revising Part VI.

        Another reason this post resonates with me so much is because I did want, in Disciple to haul the language and tone up to a higher standard — as much as I can, given that I’m painfully aware of my lack of scholarly qualifications. So you hit on a lot of my insecurities, there. Bravo! 🙂

        • I don’t have any scholarly qualifications myself; not even a (normal) high-school diploma. What little I have learnt, I have acquired catch-as-catch-can.

          If you are interested in language and tone, you might find my essai ‘The Rhetoric of Middle-earth’ helpful in parts. (And den again you moutn’t.) I’ve reposted it here on the site, just in case.

  2. I think that Kurtz’s reply to FETP is perfectly sound: she is not writing about a “mythical Keltic kingdom” at all. She is writing, in Frye’s terms, low mimetic historical novels, and her characters are no more figures of romance because they wield magic than Rabbit Angstrom is a figure of romance because he comes equipped with a chariot that needs no horses to pull it, but can travel at the top speed of a race horse for hours on end.

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  1. […] For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this at somewhat greater length in ‘Teaching Pegasus to crawl’. […]

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