Swordplay and Beer Drinking; The Trouble with Mastery

My friends and I have this game called Shotgun-Shotgun. You take a can of beer, put it on a stump, shoot it with a pellet gun, then run forward and drink the beer spurting out of the can. I can tell you with confidence that I’m good at this game, and although we only play it rarely, I’m unlikely to get much better. That is because it’s really quite a simple game.

In this, it is almost exactly unlike chess. Chess, we are told, takes about ten thousand hours to master, ten thousand hours, mind you, for someone who is already pretty fucking good at chess to begin with. This ten-thousand hour rule seems to apply pretty broadly across the spectrum of complex, multivariate activities, things like basketball and the playing of the violin. To achieve a top level in any of these fields, the evidence suggests, you really need to put in about ten thousand hours of sustained, intentional study.

This is a serious problem for writers of fantasy. Or, to put it more precisely, a serious problem for the characters about whom fantasy writers tend to write.

Take, for example, the hoary old trope of the farm boy who becomes a blademaster. Let’s assume the kid has the necessary natural talent. Let’s further spot him a few hundred hours due to his ability to handle a hoe. He’s still about 9,700 hours in the hole when it comes to the mastery of Kvaaana’va, the glowing, bedragoned, unbreakable antique blade of his people.

Consider the curious case of Rand al’Thor.

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

As far as we know, the first time Rand’s ever held a sword is in the third or fourth chapter of The Eye of the World. And yet, by the end of the second book (The Great Hunt) he holds his own in single combat against one of the Forsaken, evidently on the strength of a few dozen lessons squeezed in between a lot of wandering, running away from Trollocs,  and playing the flute. Barely half a year has elapsed since he first holds a sword, and yet he’s capable of battling a full blademaster to a standstill. For those of you not near a calculator, half a year is about 4300 hours, and that’s all the hours in all the days.

Given Rand’s piecemeal, ad hoc practice schedule, a schedule not really suitable for a middle school scrabble club, let alone the martial training of the most important person in the world, it’s more than a little surprising that he gets so good so fast.

Of course, there’s something assholish about totaling up hours and insisting on certain tallies for certain activities. This is fiction, this is fantasy, and I’m totally willing to admit a little flex into the calculation. Rand’s case, however, involves more than a little flex. It strains credulity so violently that the whole fabric of the fantasy is in danger of tearing wide open. If this kid can master a sword in a few weeks, it would seem that anyone can do anything – which, as it turns out, is not far from the truth, given the extraordinary abilities mastered by the other characters. Keep in mind that the whole series, all fourteen books, span just two years. The final eight books cover less than twelve months.

Jordan is far from alone when it comes to this issue of implausible mastery. Part of the reason is that fantasy often doubles as a coming of age story, a fact that puts the writer in a bind. Her first choice is to compress the learning process (whether of sword or magic or bow or politics or whatever) into a preposterous time frame. The second is to dilate the space of the novel in order to accommodate the necessary training. We’ve already seen the dangers of the second approach. Expanding the time frame avoids these dangers, but runs the risk of diluting the narrative urgency.

Of course, writers have found a way to tackle this problem. Anthony Ryan, for instance, in his brilliant first novel, Blood Song, makes use of the frame story, a narrative unfolding in a compressed present, to keep his multi-year tale of training, mystery, and self-discovery from coming apart. Without the frame, Blood Song might seem rambling, unfocused. The frame, however, reminds us that the whole thing is aiming at a clear climax. It gives us a particular lens through which to understand the passage of many years. It’s a smart approach, and Ryan handles it masterfully.

Ursula K. Le Guin does something different in her Earthsea novels. Each book covers a relatively short period of time, a few weeks or months (although Wizard is longer). This gives us the intensity and focus that can be lacking in longer, more wandering narratives. The passage of time, the consolidation and mastery of Ged’s skills, takes place primarily between volumes. The years pass, Ged’s abilities grow, and yet we aren’t forced to witness every step along the path. Instead, Le Guin draws us in for the inflection points, the most crucial forks in the road.

A third approach, quite common in the genre, is to start the story with a young character whose training is mostly behind her or him, who is just at the cusp of a major breakthrough. N.K. Jemisin uses this approach quite skillfully in her beautiful, gut-punching novel The Killing Moon, where Nijiri has already mastered the bulk of his training before the book opens. This allows Jemisin to focus on the crucial final steps, the last lessons imparted from master to student (and dredged up from the depths of the student’s own being) in the story itself.

I’m sure there are other ways to handle the dual issues of training and time. I’d be curious to hear from other readers and writers on the subject. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get back to my own ten thousand hour apprenticeship. If only Lan al’Mandragoran could make me a master of writing in half a dozen quick lessons squeezed in between beer drinking and sledding.