Pompous Cocks; Idiom in Fantasy

Joe Abercrombie knows how to start a novel. Here’s the beginning of Best Served Cold (reproduced more fully on his website):

“‘You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza.’

“She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn’t spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. ‘Facts are facts. Stating them isn’t a gift. You only prove you’re not blind.’ She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. ‘But I’ll hear more.’

“He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. ‘Your hair is like to . . . a veil of shimmering sable!’

“‘You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still.’

“‘Shit.’ He squinted up at the clouds. ‘Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!’

“‘I’ve got stones in my face, now?’

“‘Lips like rose petals?’

“She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. ‘That’s to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better.’”

Abercrombie is a smart writer, and this opening shows him playing with the linguistic ground of fantasy. Monza, of course, speaks contemporary English, while Benna, the purveyor of compliments here, is working in what we might call a classic fantasy idiom – a sort of bastard hodge-podge of what could pass (if we don’t listen very closely) as early modern English (half-remembered from a play we dozed through in eighth grade), complete with the overblown sensibility that afflicts poets in nearly every era.

Consider the following syntax: “Your hair is like to a veil…”

Like to…  It’s straight out of Shakespeare (“Wishing me like to one more rich in hope…”) or Spenser (“My love is like to ice…”) or Wyatt (“Like to these unmeasurable mountains…”) Abercrombie is winking at us here, right at the novel’s outset. “Hey!” he seems to say. “Isn’t this how characters in fantasy novels are supposed to talk?”

Well, maybe.

If we go back (again) to Tolkien, we find a number of the characters employing a slightly elevated idiom. Aragorn, for instance: “Many evil things there are that your strong walls and bright swords do not stay.” The inverted syntax is, of course, archaic.  We do not say, “Many bills there are that you have not paid.” Or, “Many beers I drank last night.” We tend to lead with the subject rather than the direct object. Other characters in Middle Earth, notably the dwarves and elves, also employ syntax that sounds unusual to our modern ears.

And yet, it is crucial to note that Tolkien isn’t just tossing around haphazard archaisms to give his tale a patina of age. In fact, plenty of his characters, especially the hobbits, speak perfectly contemporary English. Here’s Bilbo: “Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on the story.” Or Frodo: “It is no good trying to escape you. But I’m glad, Sam. I cannot tell you how glad.”

Tolkien, as his fans know, was an Oxford professor of English Language and Literature. He was more than at home in English philology, and he uses the different linguistic registers in the Lord of the Rings intentionally, to suggest to the reader differences in culture, history, and character.

Of course, most fantasy novelists in the latter half of the twentieth century cut their teeth on Tolkien. Unfortunately, many of them paid more attention to the occasional archaic idiom of Aragorn or Galadriel, and brushed aside the plain-spoken modern English of Sam and Frodo. It makes a sort of sense, after all. Epic fantasy (traditionally) was set in a quasi-European medieval world (though we are, thank god, moving away from that as a given), the characters fought with quasi-European medieval weapons, and they spoke (what was supposed to be) a sort of quasi-European (meaning English for those of us who speak English) medieval language.

Thankfully, plenty of writers have eschewed this practice, aiming for a dusted-off and updated vernacular that allows their characters a little more convincing griminess.  Much as we love Aragorn, it’s tough to imagine him ever taking a shit. A major character in A Song of Ice and Fire, on the other hand, is killed while doing exactly that. Syntax and word choice, in other words, aren’t just an aesthetic matter; they impinge directly on the development of character, something at the heart of epic fantasy.

Of course, there are challenges involved in updating the idiom. Most of us read fantasy because we want something larger than life. The “larger” refers to swords and castles, of course, but also to the prose. There’s something wonderful in the alien majesty of Beowulf, or the Mahabharata, or the Sundiata, and it would be a shame to lose it entirely. The question is when to let it run, and when to rein it in. Thoughts?

17 thoughts on “Pompous Cocks; Idiom in Fantasy

  1. I wasn’t sure I’d like any piece more than your orgasmic last one, but this one was so full of great one-liners that I’m not sure where to start. Actually, I should thank you. I read the whole thing without a lapse in attention and feel like I learned more.
    Good for you.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it. There’s a lot to say on the subject (I’m pondering a follow-up at some point), but Abercrombie provided a pretty easy entry point!

  2. The Best Served Cold opening is a great one, it is true. The risk with stepping away from the archaic when one chooses to write fantasy is that people (reviewers) will call you out for it… And they can judge negatively. A shame, since I thought the point of continuing to write new stories was about bringing the old tales (there are only so many, aren’t there?) into the here and now, making them accessible to all… But I may be a bit simple.

    • Totally agreed that making old tales new can be one of the great roles of imaginative literature of all sorts.

      It’s funny that you mention reviewers calling writers onto the carpet for stepping away from the archaic. Seems true, but I’ve also seen reviews that take people to task for sticking with a pointlessly outdated idiom. Just goes to show that the question of idiom is central to fantasy and not at all simple!

  3. When we think “larger,” in terms of culture and setting, I don’t think it’s enough to think merely in terms of scope, but also in diversity. To that end, I think Tolkien was right on the money in applying different language rhythms and I think Martin is right on the money in applying it on a character level, establishing voice.

    I mean, it is hard to imagine Aragorn taking a shit because that’s not really the sort of thing his voice would say. Whereas Martin’s characters usually would, though a few of them don’t. Hence the question as to when to let it run is when you’re experiencing the story through a character who would do so and when to rein it in is the same answer.

    Honesty is the key to storytelling and conformity is the death of honesty.

    • This is a great point, Sam. One of the things that so attractive about the worlds that Tolkien and Martin have created is that they ARE large enough to encompass characters who work in all sorts of different idioms, and I agree with you, that this is a large part of their appeal. It’s interesting to turn from these continent-spanning books to something more narrowly focused (set in a single city, say), and therefore less diverse in the cast of characters. An author who zooms in like this has to make some tough choices…

  4. I especially like that the passage you open with highlights the contrast in speech styles, which is definitely something that often goes consciously unnoticed in a lot of fiction. Certainly, Tolkein’s variation in the syntax of his cultures is a subtle clue to display the differences in the psychology of those cultures, but a lot of this is also lost in his excessively detailed narrative voice. (To my mind, Tolkein’s real masterpiece is his blending of the existing manuscript editions of the 14th Century poem, Sir Orfeo, into as true a version of the oral lay as we are likely to come across.)

    I think it is also worth considering pulp fiction when thinking about the faux-fantasy English: Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories are full of clunky phrasing where dialogue rises to the fore. That said, as a method to evoke a different age, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad one, just one of a certain time.

    Whilst I think that clarity of “spoken” English is important, even in fantasy, it is worth ensuring that the characters come through first. There’s a subtle balance between echoing recognisable syntax and plastering a soulless character. A dwarven character bound to German sentence structure would go well to show his mechanical mind.

    • You and Sam (one of the earlier commenters) are completely on the same page here, and I agree with both of you. To expand on my response to him, I actually sometimes enjoy reading a character who speaks in an utterly outmoded idiom — as long (as both of you have pointed out) as that idiom exists in service to the development of that character.

  5. Idiom is something I think about (and play with) a lot. I think idiom can very efficiently signal the background of a character (education, geographical origin, and generation) just as it does with real people,. On a literary level, idiom can let the reader know the technological level of the character (and often of the story itself). Like in Bujold’s The Sharing Knife, the fact that the main character says “pretty near” instead of “almost” tells me I’m reading about old-fashioned Midwest North America, and people talk like my grandpa.
    Of course this all assumes that the dialects spoken by the characters in the story map onto English variation across time and geography. In a fantasy set in medieval Japan, will you make people from northern Honshu say “ain’t” or “dinna” instead of “isn’t” or “don’t”? When does that start being silly.
    Also, I’d like to recommend The English Dialect Blog as a great source of material: http://dialectblog.com/

    • Your question about English-language fantasy set in Japan (or a quasi-Japanese analogue) is a great one. Now we’re right down deep in the roots of all sorts of complex issues of translation. If a Japanese character speaks a version of Japanese associated with gruff fishing communities on the northern coast, do we give her a Maine accent when writing in English? You could drive yourself insane thinking about this stuff — and I do!

      Looking forward to checking out the blog you’ve linked here. Thanks!

      • Well what choices do you have? You can map English dialects onto non-English languages (it’s easier if they’re made-up fantasy languages and nobody can call you out on an inaccurate translation), you can try to apply dialectical features of the source dialect into your target language (I ya hungry. I have-hen eaten in daysn’nen. Bigly, daddy-part) a risk of being incomprehensible. Or you can strip out the dialect and just be boring and flat. Are there any other choices?
        I talk about this issue at http://www.thekingdomsofevil.com/?p=2054 but I don’t find a good solution.

  6. Great point, Brian.
    It seems to me, readers will tend to identify more with characters that speak plain modern English than those who speak the quasi-Medieval English, within the same book. In Tolkien’s writing, we identify mostly with the Hobbits for that reason, among others. However, characters that use more archaic words seem more exotic and interesting.

  7. Wow! By which ejaculation I refer to your headline, not the opening of the novel. ‘Cause frankly my eyes glazed over after the first sentence. The second para did me in. I realize I’m oddly brained, and probably not his target audience. But just changing it to something like this would’ve helped me get through: “She sighed. Did he think it was an accident?” Or…something with “presumed” (might be too archaic) or “supposed” might work.

    Almost anything more active, and possibly more clearly scornful, would have been better. For me. Because I like characters and emotions in motion. But what do I know?

    I thought you made some good points, once I forced myself to read far enough to find them. Anyway, now I have a new blog for my RSS reader. For which I thank you. Though the next time I miss a self-imposed deadline? I will be apportioning blame.

    • Glad you like the blog, David.

      I love Abercrombie, but he’s not for everyone (who is?). If you’re unfamiliar with his work and want to give it another try, I’d actually recommend The Heroes rather than Best Served Cold as an entry point. I think the former is his best book.

      And I can only apologize for the missed deadlines. I live in terror of deadlines…

      All the best,
      Brian

  8. I do believe all the ideas you have offered in your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for novices. May just you please prolong them a bit from next time? Thank you for the post:

    • Thanks for getting in touch! I’d love to go into more depth on some of these issues — in fact, some day I’d like to use these posts as a jumping-off point for a whole book on the craft of writing epic fantasy. At the moment, though, I’m squeezing them in between working on the books themselves. If you want more material in this vein (but from a very different angle), I’d recommend Jo Walton’s, What Makes This Book So Great. She’s a talented writer and good thinker about all things fantasy!

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