Of Lummoxes and Dickheads: Cursing in Fantasy

As of yet my son hasn’t begun to speak, which might be a blessing, since my wife and I are both a little worried about the unwholesome linguistic atmosphere in which he is being raised. It’s possible that his first words might be something that will get him kicked out of preschool. We wonder how we’ll hold our heads up in the community when he starts swearing a blue streak at the playground. Periodically we contemplate washing out our own dirty mouths, then realize the impossibility of that task. “Fuck it,” we say.

There were long decades during which a character in a fantasy novel, even a very bad character, could not have come to the same conclusion. Zedd, in Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule is forced to resort to “bags,” as in, “Bags, and Double Bags!” Or Robert Jordan’s characters. They can’t say “fuck” either. They can say “blood and bloody ashes!” In a pinch they can call someone a “bull-goose fool” or a “hairy lummox.” But a “fucking dickhead?” Nope. What about the Dark One? Surely he’s a fucking dickhead? Maybe, but the characters won’t tell you that. As far as they’re concerned, he’s “light-forsaken.”

Of course there are other writers who don’t shy away from a good prick, asshole, or goat-fucker. Still, enough fantasy novelists do tidy up their language that we can reasonably ask what’s going on when they steer clear of this “stronger language.” Seems to me that there are three issues at work here. First, some fantasy writers are aiming for YA appeal (even if the novels aren’t truly YA). Pussies and assholes are, I believe, frowned upon in YA.

Second, fantasy writers seem to be operating under the illusion that the really dirty words are too contemporary, that “fuck” and “shit” somehow belong to the same lexicon as “television” and “toaster.” There’s a tiny sliver of truth to this, in that public discourse has become, over the last twenty years, far more accepting of profanity. I doubt that men and women in their private lives swear any more these days than they did a century ago (at least, the kind of men and women I like to hang out with), but they tended not to do it in print, or on the air, or in church, or whatever. So, while an English blacksmith could tell a friend to “go fuck himself” back in 1871 (or 1571), we don’t have a record of this sort of language in, say, Paradise Lost or Middlemarch, or even the newspapers of the time. For those writers aiming to recreate a bygone idiom, the written record is misleading; it suggests an absence of profanity in those centuries preceding our own when no such absence existed.

The final reason that I suspect fantasy writers sometimes eschew profanity is the most interesting: our swears reflect our beliefs about the world, sometimes even our beliefs about the universe. Ok, probably not “fuck.” Or “shit.” Everyone fucks and shits. At least, everyone hopes to.
But think about the following:
“Damn it.”
“Go to hell.”
“Jesus Christ.”
“You fucking bastard.”

The last is the most straightforward. “Bastard” only exists as a curse in a society where illegitimate birth is frowned upon. If a writer plans to have characters call other characters bastards, she needs to carefully consider the societal mores she’s creating.

“Damn,” was a particular thorn in my side when I started writing fantasy. It’s such a useful, all-purpose, low-level swear – the sort of thing you can say when you’re not really ready to drop the F-bomb: “The god-damned UPS guy left my package out in the rain again.” Sort of a reasonable-sounding swear. But what if your fantasy universe does not involve, as mine does not, a hell? Damnation is predicated on the possibility of a torturous afterlife. Without one, the word literally has no meaning. Same thing with “hell.” And then, of course, you’ve got God, Christ, Jesus, Jesus Christ, etc. These are self-evidently tied to the theology of a Christian society, and if the characters in your book aren’t Christian, what are they supposed to say?

A writer can, of course, have his characters invoke their own gods, but this risks sounding stupid: “By the teeth of Azamfalon!” It sort of sucks, right? (Which reminds me – “sucks” is another word you don’t see Aragorn busting out all that often. Although imagine the possibilities: “The Mines of Moria fucking suck, Gimli. You dickhead.”) Maybe you could trim it down to “Azamfalon!” but that still doesn’t roll off the tongue.

And then all of a sudden you have to start thinking about changing the names of your major deities (if there even are deities) to accommodate the cursing of your more foul-mouthed characters. Hence, I think, Robert Jordan’s monumental list of sort-of curses. It’s a sticky problem with no clear solution: every writer has to tackle it for herself. Me, I like to allow my characters a good f-bomb now and again, although my soldiers swear a lot more than my monks. Curious to hear what other people think on this matter. What kind of cursing yanks you out of a fantasy world, and what sort pulls you even deeper into it?