HIGH STYLE, POETIC PROSE AND ELEVATED DICTION

I argued here that one of the hallmarks of high fantasy is poetic prose. But how do the great writers achieve their “high style?” And what exactly is high style, or as it’s more officially (but less beautifully) called, elevated diction?

Fantasy stories (at least those of an epic flavor) are a natural home for this kind of writing. The genre tropes lend themselves to it: light against dark, heroes against villains, courage against despair and the great sweeps of time during which the fate of people, nations and even worlds hang in the balance.

I’ll give some examples of high style because it’s one of those things that’s hard to describe but easy to recognize when you see it. But first, I’ll run through what it isn’t.

David Eddings uses the term in his introduction to The Rivan Codex. He says, “Next came the question of how to tell it. My selection of Sir Perceval (Sir Dumb, if you prefer) sort of ruled out ‘High Style’. I can write in ‘High Style’ if necessary (see Mandorallen with his ‘thee’s, ‘thou’s and ‘foreasmuche’s), but Garion would have probably swallowed his tongue if he’d tried it.”

I don’t want to disagree with a master of the genre, but in this he was wrong. Is Mandorallen’s speech archaic? Yes. Is it formal? Yes. Does it provide contrast to the earthy dialogue of Belgarath, the witty observations of Silk and the sarcastic tones of Ce’Nedra? Yes. But it’s not high style. It’s everyday speech from a few hundred years ago. Would the people who spoke that way have considered it high? Not at all. For them, it was ordinary. Something more than archaic formality is needed to lift writing to the status of “high.”

Some people group high style together with purple prose. According to Wikipedia, “Purple prose is written prose that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context.”

Well, that sounds like a good definition. However, what does “beyond the requirements of its context” mean? It means nothing at all, for whether or not the context requires ornate prose is a matter of taste. It’s like saying good food is unnecessary because the human body can survive on stale bread and gruel. Apologies to stale bread and gruel aficionados.

The great pulp era writers like Robert E. Howard (author of the Conan stories) were sometimes accused of purple prose. But much of Howard’s writing was true high style (to my taste). And I suggest that his critics simply didn’t care for sensually evocative writing in any context. Howard was also a great user of adjectives, a habit mistakenly frowned upon by some critics.  My thoughts on that are here.

So, what exactly is high style?

High style is a simple style. It uses the right word in the right place. It uses specific nouns, shuns weak adverbs, uses active verbs, prefers an unusual verb to a common one and uses adjectives to invoke strong imagery. Above all, it’s terse. Actually, that’s just good writing. High style, in addition to all that, adds layers of poetic technique such as simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration and resonance. In short, the words have a ring to them, for words, whether spoken or read, are musical.

Of course, there’s a time and place for everything. An author wouldn’t use high style to describe two bugs crawling up a wall (although the writer in me is twitching at that challenge). Prose, like music, needs variation to work. It should rise to high style when the emotional impact of the prose reaches a crescendo.

Showing is better than telling, so here are some examples.

This is the beginning of Robert E Howard’s The Phoenix on the Sword.

Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.

Now, to my taste, that has a ring to it. It’s exquisite. I won’t attempt a detailed analysis (which would take far more room than I have here) but I’ll draw your attention to a few of Howard’s techniques.

Some of the most powerful phrases are personifications (the giving of human-like characteristics to inanimate objects): the oceans drank Atlantis . . . shadow-guarded tombs . . . the proudest kingdom . . . the dreaming west. Also, note some of the adjectives that provide vivid imagery: gleaming cities . . . dark-haired women . . . spider-haunted mystery . . . jeweled thrones . . . sandalled feet.

This is another example. It’s from Tolkien’s The Silmarrillion. Fingolfin has just challenged Morgoth to combat.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable on-blazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.

This is the work of one of the great masters of the English language. The paragraph is thick with similes and at least one metaphor: like thunder . . . like a tower . . . like a stormcloud . . . as a star . . . glittered like ice. Not to mention the adjectives again: subterranean throne . . . black armour . . . iron-crowned . . . vast shield . . . And there’s personification in the rumour of his feet. Also, note some of the alliteration: feet, forth, black, before, clad, king, iron-crowned, cast, stormcloud.

Let’s rework that paragraph without the sensually evocative prose.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne. His feet trod loudly on the stairs. And he issued forth clad in armour; and he stood before the King, and his vast shield cast a shadow over him. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it, for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil. 

That just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? And I didn’t even remove the alliteration.

So, to all the haters of poetic prose who would have me eat only stale bread and gruel, a thousand poxes upon your houses, and may you be flooded by a ceaseless tide of ever-more-vivid adjectives. And if that’s beyond the requirements of context, I’ll find a way to live with it.

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