Friday, January 30, 2009

The Language of Fantasy

I am in the process of publishing a series of six fantasy novels complete with wizards, elves and dwarves and yet I rarely read fantasy. I loved The Lord of the Rings, thought Harry Potter was fantastic and think Watership Down is a masterpiece. These are three of my all-time favorite stories. They are doorways into places—magically real beyond reason. Books in other genres have entertained me, educated me, depressed me, and forced me to turn pages, but they were all forgotten, usually a few days after putting them down, and yet I can’t say I am an avid reader of the fantasy genre that gave birth to my favorites.

I have tried to read other fantasy novels, but it is often like bashing my head against a wall. With towers of dense descriptions, moats of unpronounceable words and barbican prologues, I usually can’t breech the first chapter. It is as if the writers—like the evil witch in Sleeping Beauty with her forest of thorns—are doing all in their power to ensure no one will endure the trials to reach the interior. Yet perhaps the greatest of obstacles is the fascination with archaic sounding prose. The overly dramatic, yet simplified, backward sentence structure that reminds me of a frontier white man translating the words of an American Indian.

Something as simple as:
Dron’s father, the oldest of us, and a bear of a man, even refused to go into the valley.

Is presented as something like:
The father of Dron, wide of girth, ancient of his people, strode forth. He would not enter the dark place, the land of Hidden Moons.

The dialog is often worse. “I have had the weariness in my limbs as well, my lord. A hardship it would be to continue for us, weak in spirit, empty of stomach.”

I am guessing the authors feel they are creating a more authentic sound, believing this is how people in the past spoke to one another having perhaps read Beowulf, or the Song of Roland. They could well be right on this point. Not having a time machine I can’t say if the writers of that time were putting down words in distinct contrast to what they heard in the streets or not. What I can guess with a degree of certainly, is that the style of speech used did not strike the users as odd. The language people conversed in would have sounded commonplace and typical, filled with slang, and puns just as our own. And just as our manner of speech would be received as odd and strangely stilted to someone speaking an understandable English in the fourteenth century, we have the same opinion of theirs. Were a writer describing a tenth century knight brought to New York City, I would expect to see this language difference, but when a story is set entirely in another place and time, there is no sensible need for this unless they anticipate their audience is to be made up of people who actually lived a thousand years ago.

Insisting on an archaic sound creates an unnecessary obstacle to the reader. A hurdle they need to jump over in order to reach the story and the characters. It also has the tendency to sound silly, childish and, quite frankly, as if English is not the writer’s first language.

I feel it is important to immerse the reader in the world. I want them to feel at home, as if they were born there. Enough oddities will challenge them, the language should not be one. I would prefer readers are not held at arm’s length, constantly reminded that the people in the story are very different from them, that they are watching this story unfold in a distant place with alien people. I want the reader to come to think of themselves as being a character in the book and thereby experience the events first hand. That’s a challenge when all the other characters are saying things like, “I too have felt the blow of Ector, strong upon my chest and did rattle me greatly!” I always feel like tapping the guy on the shoulder and asking, “You mean the guy hit you too? Why didn’t you just say that? Just say the creep hit you and nearly knocked you down.”

Not everyone agrees. I have had some chastise me for my modern sounding dialog—people who apparently prefer to read their modern fantasy as if it were written by a monk in twelfth century France. Being fantasy, I retain my get-out-of-jail-free card rational of—my world, my rules, but I would still insist that this is how the dialog that the afore mentioned French monk wrote would sound to the monk sitting on the stool next to him. And should, said monk, choose to write a tale set in the fictional world of Chicago a thousand years in the future, I am certain the people of Illinois would use thee and thou, ye and verily. Then the monk beside him would say, “but wouldn’t people in the future speak differently?” and the author would reply, “Perhaps, but I’m not writing it for them.”