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.