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?

Napoleon Versus Fantasy; The Role of the Map

Napleon is rumored to have declared, “Geography is destiny.”

Of course, Napoleon was dumb enough to invade Russia and spent the last six years of his life in prison, so it’s not as though he had everything figured out, but still, if he’s right on this score, then fantasy novelists are wrong.

After all, fantasy novels are supposed to be books about people (or demons, or trolls, or dragons, or whatever). The unspoken premise from Tolkien and Lewis right on down is that what matters is human character and the decisions that unfold from character in conflict. No one advises Aragorn not to worry about Sauron because the trade routes, dominant weather patterns, and resource distribution of Middle Earth won’t support a long-term orcish presence outside of Mordor.

For the past ten years I’ve been teaching history (mostly world, some ancient and medieval European), and there is a school of thought (out of fashion at the moment) that accords with the fantasy mindset: the Great Man approach.

As you might infer, the Great Man approach, championed by Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle, and other major 19th century figures, suggests that history is more or less the story of the great men (and, despite the shitty name of the theory, women), individuals of genius, daring, charisma, and insight who more or less single-handedly wrench the course of history in a direction of their choosing.

One thinks of Shi Huangdi, the first Qin emperor of China, or Genghis Khan, or Joan of Arc. Jesus springs to mind, and Mohammad. Cleopatra. Queen Elizabeth. Had these folks never been born, the argument goes, or had they died in infancy, the great sweep of human history might have been fundamentally altered.

We don’t need to make much of a jump to see that this is the fundamental assumption behind almost all epic fantasy. It matters what Raistlin and Shea Ohmsford do. Had our fantasy heroes made different choices, different shit would have happened, usually some very bad shit. Want to give Boromir that ring, Frodo?

Interestingly, as I mentioned above, the “Great Man” theory has largely fallen from grace in historical circles. Many historians now see different factors as formative and transformational: climate (Jared Diamond in Collapse), trade patterns (Cunliffe in Europe Between the Oceans), indigenous plants and animals (Diamond again, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, along with plenty of others), and, you guessed it: geography. Unfortunately, these elements don’t lend themselves to story:

In the third age of An’Abar, when the Leper King ruled from his blighted throne, a new strain of wheat was introduced, the cross-pollination of which allowed the formerly sterile maize…

The importance of this boring stuff is, however, hard to dispute. I used to begin every class on a new civilization with a full day or two studying the relevant maps. It was amazing what conclusions my students were able to draw simply from the geography without so much as a glance at political or cultural history. Ancient Egypt, for instance, sheltered from foreign influences and invaders by the Sahara to the west, the cataracts of the Nile to the south, the sprawling Nile delta to the north, and the deserts of Sinai to the east, was predictably insular for thousands of years, its government remarkably stable. Or Greece: just take a glance at those islands, peninsulae, and mountains and you know that it’s going to be a land of city states, autonomous units that will resist all attempts at unification or central control.

But Alexander the Great was so… great! He kept Greece unified! He swept through Persia and brought the Hellenistic culture to the east! Well, yeah. I hear that. On the other hand, you don’t see Macedonians running Iran these days. (Although, to be fair, you don’t see Zoroastrian Achaemenids running it either.)

The point is, there aren’t too many fantasy readers out there who want to read a six-book series about the effects of river-silting on the rise and fall of a civilization (although I’d be curious to see some insane writer take up that gauntlet). We want to read about people doing stuff and we want that stuff, at least in epic fantasy, to matter. So what about geography?

I’d argue there’s still an important role for geography to play, and here we come to the map. I’m not sure how most writers work, but my impression is that sometimes the map evolves hand-in-hand with the story while other times a writer lays out the plot then drafts up a map as a sort of background against which the events can play out. By now it’s probably clear that I prefer the former approach (although I’ve read and loved plenty of books in which I’ll bet the writer employed the latter). It’s not so much that it’s bad to use the map-as-backdrop strategy, but I find that the map can be a priceless source of inspiration. A plausible harbor might suggest a merchant oligarchy; scant forests, a lumber monopoly.

I know, I know. No one wants to read about tariffs or fiat currency, and I’m not suggesting they should be the extent of the novel’s scope, merely that these factors can help enrich a world, can make for plausible and exciting politics, trade, and migration against which the human drama that we’re all excited for can unfold. Most importantly, they all spring from the map.

In some novels, the interplay between map and plot strikes me as plausible. In others… not so much. I’m curious to hear from readers here: does geography matter in fantasy, or have my long years teaching history infected my brain?

Dating Rand Al’Thor: the Crappy Boyfriends of Epic Fantasy

*** My wife, Johanna, wrote the following post so I could keep cranking away on Book Two of Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. I thought she might write something nice about me. Oops. ***

I am so happy to be married to my husband.

But, man, was he bad at dating.

Brian, in case you don’t know, has a degree in poetry. He has seen Love, Actually dozens of times. He cries at weddings. Clearly, he’s the kind of guy who knows all about romance. Except, he doesn’t know anything about romance. It’s like some supernatural force replaced the romance center of his brain with a yawning void of infinite nothingness. “Wait,” he’ll protest after smacking my butt in public or letting me pick what movie to rent. “That wasn’t romantic?” It’s not hard to guess how many candle-lit dinners he planned during our years of courtship…

The staggering thing, though, and my central point here, is that Brian actually looks good at romance compared to some of the central heroes of epic fantasy.

Rand al’Thor: I should admit before we go too far, that I could not make myself read past Book One of the Wheel of Time series. I think in most fantasy circles, that makes me a heretic. But even with my tainted history, I can still be fairly certain that it would suck to go on a first date with Rand al’Thor – always talking about himself, never picking up on hints, alternating between needy and surly. He doesn’t know how to make Egwene feel pretty, even though it’s clear that she really cares about her hair and all he’d have to say would be something like, “Hey, Egwene, I really like your your new ‘do.” Nope. Nada. Instead he “stares at that braid as if it were a viper.” By the end of Eye of the World, he doesn’t even recognize her face. Okay, fine, he’s just been through some epic stuff with one of the Forsaken, but still… Epic hero? Check. Terrible boyfriend? Check.

(I just read that last paragraph to Brian and he tells me that by the end of the series Rand has three girlfriends! I knew he was a goon, and I didn’t even get past the first book.)

Aragorn: Tromping around the known world like a dirty hobo, constantly brooding on his inferiority complex, and the ring he’s focused on isn’t even for his lady love? She’s giving up immortality for this guy, and he can’t even buy her a proper dinner? Good thing Arwen can see into the future and finds out that even though he’s terrible as a boyfriend, he does pretty well at being a husband. Without that little bit of knowledge, would she have put up with him at all?

FitzChivalry Farseer (spoiler in this paragraph): By the end of Assassin’s Quest, one wonders what Molly ever saw in him in the first place. The amazing thing is that he knows he’s a bad boyfriend, admitting that he is “the man who had lied to her, who had left her with child and never returned, and then caused that child to be stolen from her as well…” Yes, he fulfills some prophecies and saves the world, but why, considering this excellent resume, can’t he muster anything more impressive than a few late-night booty calls and some serious dead-beat dad jackassery? Because he’s an epic fantasy hero, that’s why!

To be fair, there are a few fantasy heroes that I would consider good boyfriend material. Nijiri’s dedication to Ehiru in N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon made me cry. Ingrey’s bond with Ijada in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Hallowed Hunt was sweet and passionate and contained a minimum of bad boyfriend behavior (once he managed to stop trying to kill her in his sleep). But these guys, despite being heroes, aren’t really epic. They don’t save the whole world from all-encompassing evil, exactly, even though they do their part.

Most epic fantasy heroes would have a hard time getting past the first date with a sane partner. Why? Is the lack of viable romance in fantasy something that writers should be thinking about? Do the epic heroes of past masterpieces have a bad influence on the heroes (and writers) of today’s fantasy, or do they teach valuable lessons in how to juggle effective wooing and saving the world? I’m inventing a new genre: epic fantasy couples counseling. You’re welcome.