Marriage is not Epic Fantasy; POV and the Dangers of Intimacy

“Even after twenty years together, my wife/husband/partner still surprises me every day!”

When I hear comments like this, I know I’m supposed to say, “Shucks, isn’t that sweet!” Instead, I want to call bullshit. If you spend twenty years with a person and they still surprise you on a daily basis, either you haven’t been paying very close attention, or you’re married to someone with a serious personality disorder.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my wife, and marrying her was one of the two best things I’ve ever done (the other being having a kid). However, if we made a list of the wonderful things about our shared life, “Daily Unplumbed Mystique Coupled with the Bass Thrum of Bottomless Mystery” probably wouldn’t appear near the top.

Not to say that Jo doesn’t feel an occasional shiver of unanticipated pleasure when I do something unusual like unloading the dishwasher all the way. Or that I don’t find myself staring when she says it’s actually ok to have an “October Beer and Mud Sports Festival” in our backyard. Still, we don’t tend to shock each other all that often because after five years together, we know each other. Mostly. Which I have to think is sort of the point of a long-term commitment like marriage.

Marriage, however, is not epic fantasy.

The intimate familiarity that can make a romantic relationship so rich and secure can be anathema to the fantasy reader. After all, if we’re looking for a familiar story, we don’t tend to open books with paintings of half-orcs battling ice trolls beneath a sky spangled with blood-red stars. Now, obviously not everything about a great fantasy is mysterious and unusual. We need some contact with our own lives, contact that usually comes through a character or group of characters whose intellectual make-up and emotional responses are recognizable, familiar.

If all of the characters are cozy and familiar, however, if they all seem like our aunts and car mechanics and friends, we start missing out on the epic in epic fantasy. After all, we come to the genre expecting certain characters to be mysterious and larger-than-life, unfathomed and unfathomable. We should be able to relate to Sam and Frodo (even if we don’t agree with everything they do or think), but when we’re reading about Gandalf, we probably shouldn’t be thinking, “Yeah, I totally get what it’s like to be the Servant of the Secret Fire; I hated wielding the fucking Flame of Anor.” The story would be weak if Galadriel, who has lived through the three ages and thousands of years, seemed just like Jessie, the pigeon-toed brunette from that cocktail party you were at a few weeks ago.

Most fantasy writers understand all of this intuitively. Fantasy novels are replete with truly epic characters: gods and immortal mages, inscrutable dragons and sentient battle-axes. There is mystery. There is awe. There are unresolved questions.

One of the most potent tools in maintaining this mystery is point of view. Many of these larger than life characters aren’t POV characters, meaning we never get inside their heads. They can utter grand pronouncements or rattle off impossibly witty quips page after page, and they never seem too normal, too familiar (if handled well) because we only see what the writer lets us see. The POV keeps the mystery intact.

There is, however, a danger. Often, these secondary characters, due to exactly the mystery and awe just mentioned, become fan favorites. To take just one example, consider Boba Fett, the masked bounty-hunter from Star Wars. In the original three movies (episodes IV, V, and VI), Fett has a very small role, but people love him, he has his own fan club – and people want more of the characters they love. When this happens, the author (or film maker) is pressured to explain, to reveal, to expose psychology and backstory. Such explanations jeopardize the very foundation of the reader’s initial interest in the character.

And this is where POV comes into play. If we’re in Gandalf’s head, we know every time he has to take a dump, every time his gout acts up, every time that luxurious beard itches. None of that is necessarily bad. Sometimes it’s extremely effective to puncture the bubble of mystery and awe. Given the difficulty of unpuncturing bubbles, however, it’s well worth thinking about what will be lost through greater revelations, what will be destroyed through intimacy.

Peter Watts, in addition to being one of the best sci-fi writers around, understands this. His brilliant novel, Blindsight, involves a ship filled with misfits captained by a hyper-intelligent vampire named Sarasti. Watts makes the crucial decision to keep us out of the vampire’s mind, and he goes a step further: not only does he keep the reader in the dark about Sarasti’s motives and emotional make-up, even the other characters in the book are baffled by him. They often don’t understand his tactical decisions or the reasoning behind them, and Sarasti himself makes little effort to explain himself. “You can’t follow,” is his response to the questions of his crew. Those three words, in cutting off any avenue of inquiry, open up an entire world to our imaginations.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to be married to Sarasti, but damn is he fun to read about.

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?