Monthly Archives: May 2014

EPIC FANTASY: THE MAGIC OF ADJECTIVES

Stories of epic fantasy bring the reader to another world. There may be dragons, strange beasts, combat between dark sorcerers and hard-pressed wizards. The land itself may be enchanted, and several moons might hang in the sky. In short, magic is at play.

But all stories bring the reader into the world of the main character, no matter that the setting is Middle-earth or Manhattan. In order to work, fiction must make that world come to life, and the author has to conjure a sense of reality from mere words on a page. Magic indeed.

An author might write, “The dragon lifted its head and eyed the warrior.” But the reader is entitled to ask, “What sort of dragon? Is it winged? Is it long and sinuous? Is it reptilian? Is its tail barbed? Does flame flicker deep in its cavernous mouth? Or is it a cold drake?” But if the reader has to ask those questions, the spell is broken, for they are no longer seeing images in their imagination, but trying to construct a picture by rational thought. That is the death of epic fantasy – or any fiction.

Writing experts, writing teachers, style guides and the self-appointed literati advise to avoid adjectives. But if you read the above paragraph again, and remove the adjectives, you’re left with little more than the dragon.

If I had to construct a mental picture myself, I would make him a winged creature with two curls of smoke rising from his long snout. You, on the other hand, might see a barbed behemoth never to be airborne, hard-plated scales undulating as he writhed over the ground like a snake. All very good until the author has your dragon take to the sky, and then the spell is broken.

So, while the experts proclaim rules, the best writers go about telling stories their own way and working a spell on readers. Few would serve as a better example than Tolkien, so I’ll quote The Lord of the Rings. The scene is in Rohan, and Gandalf is speaking to Wormtonge.

“Thus Gandalf softly sang, and then suddenly he changed. Casting his tattered cloak aside, he stood up and leaned no longer on his staff; and he spoke in a clear cold voice. ‘The wise speak only of what they know, Gríma son of Gálmód. A witless worm have you become. Therefore be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth. I have not passed through fire and death to bandy crooked words with a serving-man till the lightning falls.’ He raised his staff. There was a roll of thunder. The sunlight was blotted out from the eastern windows; the whole hall became suddenly dark as night. The fire faded to sullen embers. Only Gandalf could be seen, standing white and tall before the blackened hearth.”

If that doesn’t convince you of the magic of adjectives, nothing will.

A word of warning though: not all passages should be so epic, even in epic fantasy. Adjectives are potent, but the magic soon fades if used too much, or worse, when the noun they modify doesn’t need it. For instance, saying, “They walked over the green grass,” is superfluous.

Try not to prove the experts right.

 

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HIGH FANTASY, WHY DOST THOU THUS?

Why do many high fantasy books have an element of archaism?

Certainly, the genre is archaic by nature, and the pages of its books are full of lightning-fast swordsmen, the slow but deadly maneuvering of armies, the desperate clash of steel on shield and the siege of thick-walled fortresses.

But that’s not what I mean.

Epic fantasy and heroic fantasy share these elements. And yet these stories are often told in a modern manner. The dialogue, sharp and witty, is just as we would speak today. The characters are people we can easily relate to. In fact, they’re so contemporary that it’s easy to picture them standing around in faded jeans and smoking cigarettes.

This quote from Magician’s Gambit, book three of David Edding’s Belgariad series, shows you what I mean:

“He’s not dead, is he?”  Durnik’s voice was almost sick.

“Not yet,” Yarbleck replied, “but Taur Urgas plans to correct that when the sun comes up in the morning. I couldn’t even get close enough to that pit to drop a dagger to him so he could open a vein. I’m afraid his last morning’s going to be a bad one.”

This is as modern as it gets, both in wording and worldview. Please don’t misunderstand me though – David Eddings is one of my favorite writers.

Yet one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is a poetic prose style, and archaic language, if used just right, is one of the most useful implements in a wordsmith’s tool box. Its use can evoke mood, setting and temperament. It can enrich a story.  Most of all, the language itself, given impetus by its very strangeness, speaks with rare clarity and vigor. It rises above the white noise of a thousand other books, of TV and Radio, of day-to-day speech itself.

The question is, how can it be used just right?

The problem with authors who occasionally use thees and thous is that readers often find those passages jarring. The archaism appears out of the blue, and disappears just as quickly. It’s not a natural part of the created world and disrupts the flow of a story that’s otherwise told in modern language.

Alternatively, if they’re used throughout, they become wearying to the ear.

So, how do the best writers do it? For them, the archaism is a natural part of the prose, from beginning to end. It might intensify during certain scenes or when certain characters speak. It flows and ebbs, but it’s always present. And subtlety is their friend. It’s often not the words they use, but the order in which they appear. Sometimes, they’ll use an archaic word too, but rarely a cliche like thee and thou, and they’ll choose one whose meaning is apparent from the context.

Cast your eyes over this, from The Lord of The Rings:

“For each of the hobbits he chose a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen, of marvellous workmanship, damasked with serpent-forms in red and gold. They gleamed as he drew them from their black sheaths, wrought of some strange metal, light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. Whether by some virtue in these sheaths or because of the spell that lay on the mound, the blades seemed untouched by time, unrusted, sharp, glittering in the sun.”

This is modern English, and yet it isn’t. It’s not how the guy on the phone trying to sell me health insurance talks.

The main difference lies in the inversion of normal word order. Also, contemporary English is clipped – we like short sentences nowadays. Additionally, some of the words, like damasked, though not really archaic, are rarely used.

This is the same passage without the Tolkien magic.

“He chose a dagger for each of the hobbits. They were long, curved, and sharp. They were also of fine workmanship, decorated with red and gold snakes. He drew the blades from their black sheaths. They gleamed. They were crafted of some strange metal that was light and strong, and set with many fiery stones. The blades were unrusted and sharp, and they glittered in the sun. Time had not touched them. Possibly, some magic in the sheaths protected them. Or a spell lay over the mound.”

There’s nothing wrong with this – but the subtle unusualness of the true version stands out more.

It’s high fantasy at its best.

It’s poetry.

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