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?

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Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.

Consider:

Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…

More Bankers, Fewer Peasants

A great development in recent fantasy is the inclusion of banks and bankers. I can’t remember encountering a bank in a fantasy novel before, say, 2005. (Anyone want to jump on this and prove me wrong?) Now they’re all over the place. Joe Abercrombie has Valint and Balk, George R. R. Martin, the Iron Bank of Braavos, and Daniel Abraham, in The Dragon’s Path, the Medean Bank, which is crucial to a lot of the action.

This proliferation of banks is a great reminder of how attenuated the available cast of fantasy characters can become. We have the peasants prodding patiently at the mud, knights who have swords with names, disgraced knights, disgraced knights pretending to be peasants, noble knights who are not actually disgraced but need to pretend to be peasants for some plot consideration or other, merchants, tavern keepers, inn keepers, beleaguered farmers, rich farmers, whores, courtesans, various sorts of nobility, barbarians (in hordes or singly), prelates, priests, and monks (often disreputable or alcoholic), and craftspeople responsible for an array of commodities such as baskets and horseshoes. Pretty similar, actually, to the list of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That’s about it.

I understand, of course, that the idiom of most epic fantasy is pre-industrial, that the proliferation of vocations and avocations available those of us in the modern first world does not exist in that setting: there are no psychic hotline specialists, or app developers, or zumba instructors, or creators of new deodorant scents. Frequent famine, limitations on long-distance trade, inadequate markets and economic systems, as well as the brutal effects of war tended to limit options.

That said, we writers of fantasy sometimes take a limited set of options and whittle it down even further. I’m forever sticking merchants or beggars into my text before reminding myself that there are other options. Lots of other options. In the ancient and medieval west we would have found painters, illuminators of manuscripts, architects, composers, cartographers, engineers, midwives, translators, shipwrights, and tutors. If we venture from benighted Europe and head east of the Himalayas for our models, we find an even richer diversity upon which to draw. There were more types of craftsmen in Tang China because there were more types of craft: makers of porcelain or keepers of silkworms. Pressers of paper. Builders of clocks. There were astronomers and doctors and creators of all manner of cosmetics.

Clearly we, as readers of fantasy, might not find the same fascination with a grower of silkworms that we would with an invincible barbarian warrior. Violence sells, sex sells, politics sells, but the engineer devoted to constructing that armillary sphere? Maybe not so much. As for the peasants? Well, there were a shitload of them.

Nonetheless, I’m encouraged when I consider the true array of options available, and delighted every time I come across that unexpected yet utterly appropriate character: a judge, a glazier, or, yes, a banker. I wonder what professions, fields, or lifestyles I’ve left out? Anyone with thoughts on writers who are particularly effective in pushing past the boundaries of stock fantasy types?

THE ENTS COME TO GETTYSBURG: MAPS AND THE FANTASY BATTLE

When my wife and I bought our house she made fun of me for spending more time looking at the survey map of the property than I did at the closets or lighting fixtures. I refused to close until I’d tromped the whole perimeter, hunting out the massive cherry tree and the stand of spruce that marked the important boundaries. Of course, I missed the fact that the washer and dryer were about to shit the bed, that one of the windows didn’t, you know, close, but I know just where to find that steel pipe hidden in the stand of moose maple.

I’ve written before about the role of maps in the generation of fantasy worlds, and I want to return to the subject of maps here on a smaller scale. Nearly every epic novel has that massive map right inside the front cover: continents and duchies, blighted deserts and major rivers, mountain ranges and disputed deltas. Those maps serve an important function, but I think we writers of fantasy sometimes forget that maps can play other roles as well, specifically when it comes to the fantasy battle.

Take a look at the following maps from the American Civil War battles of Gettysburg and Antietam:

Gettysburg Map

Antietam Map

Both were crucial conflicts and, just as importantly for our purposes here, both were complex. Gettysburg lasted three days. Anyone who’s visited the Gettysburg site knows that it takes just about that long to explore the whole battlefield, to try to understand what took place and when and how, to crouch down on Cemetery Hill, to follow the agonizingly long course of Pickett’s Charge (in which one of every two Confederate soldiers died), to walk through the “Valley of Death.” It’s not just my curiosity about maps and geography at work here, it’s a fascination with the human condition, the acts of heroism and cowardice, brilliance and stupidity, that played out on both sides. Those human stories are at the heart of the Battle of Gettysburg and the crucial thing is this: we wouldn’t be able to fully understand them without the map.

Even the most lucid writer narrating for the most attentive reader would run into problems. Describe the terrain first, then people it with troops? Consider the battle from an eagle’s-eye view, or get down in the lines and give a confusing, but more psychologically immediate account from a soldier’s perspective? Take a synchronic approach, running through all the events of, say, 3:00 PM on July 2, or follow one unit through the course of a full day and then rewind to pick up a different storyline?

A battle map doesn’t solve all these problems, but it does give the writer more freedom. A glance at a small-scale battle map gives the reader a better understanding of the terrain and deployment of troops than several pages of tedious description. The writer can then focus on the inner lives of those involved, the instances of heroism and cowardice, of tactical brilliance and strategic blunder, without worrying that the reader might not understand that this hill is a little further to the north than that hill, that the river curves below the stretch of rapids and not above.

Of course, most fantasy battles are not this complex. Even major battles (Helm’s Deep, some of the big fights in the Codex Alera series) tend to be pretty straightforward: guard this castle, attack that hill. There’s nothing wrong with straightforward fights, but any writer (and reader) with even a marginal curiosity regarding military history will sometimes hanker for something a little more involved. In these cases, a battle map (or two! Or three!) prefacing the chapter could play a crucial role. It’s worth noting that Joe Abercrombie’s novel The Heroes revolves around a single three-day battle – and it has a small-scale map of just this sort.

On the other hand, my wife never looks at the maps. “I don’t read for the cartography,” she says. “Atlases are for maps; novels are for stories.” I’m curious whether others feel this way, or if, like me, most readers would prefer more maps than we’re usually given.