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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