Figuring Out Prose

As I said previously, I’ve been trying to work out a prose style to use for “The Knights of Avalon”, a trickier thing to think about than you might expect. In this case, Tom Simon’s incredible essay books “Writing Down the Dragon” and “Death Carries a Camcorder” have been invaluable, as has Ursula K. LeGuin’s wonderful essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”. What LeGuin called Elfland I will call Faerie, Tolkien’s term for the world of myth, legend, and magic.

Like much of the stuff I write “The Knights of Avalon” is a hard place in regards to genre. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, but it has some heavy fantasy elements, yet is set in a mostly non-magical world (not entirely, however…). And the trappings of the world deliberately mimic those of the American western, as I am a fan of several (I recommend Elmore Leonard’s book “Gunsights” and the movies “True Grit (2010)”, “The Searchers”, and “The Cowoboys” in particular).

I’m not the first guy who’s attempted a fantasy western. My understanding is that Stephen King has a fairly popular one in “The Dark Tower” (I’ve never read it). But nevertheless, there are definitely particular challenges one needs to take into account in regards to it. For one, is my prose going to be from Elfland or Poughkeepsie?

This is a harder question than it seems. “The Tale of Lance” is something of an experiment. It was told in deliberately sparse Elmore Leonard-style prose. An excerpt:

Lance Shaw wasn’t what you’d call a learned man. He could read if pressed, but not well, and if asked about the finer points of history he’d say “Why are we still talking when there’s nothing we can do about it?” Lance didn’t often work with his hands, and outside of basic survival skills like starting fires and repairing clothing he knew no useful trades. He was a passable but not particularly skilled cook, and he wasn’t what you would traditionally call a people’s person.

But Lance knew how to do one thing well. Better than everybody else, in fact. Lance was the best fighter on the isle of Britain.

I tried to use deliberately simple language and stripped down, no-nonsense sentences that got to the point with little fuss, as generally befits the western. There is little embellishment.

Or at least, that’s the effect I was trying for. This is not meant to teach (I feel as if one must pay more dues than I have thus far to really earn that right, though I do have something to say as an editor), but merely to show you what I’m doing. Whether or not it works isn’t my call – not really. It’s up to you, dear reader.

But onward we go. Now let’s go to a brief piece of dialogue to contrast Lance’s dialect with a certain character from Faerie’s:

“I tell you now, that hour has come at last. Invaders have arrived to threaten the land; dark forces arise in the south. Plague and civil war have compounded the danger. I have come into the world between the worlds to ask of you a great favor.”

Strangely, Lance was not at all alarmed. Perhaps if he had appeared while Lance was awake, he would have been. Here, however, in this dream world, Lance could accept his presence. After all, this was only a dream. “You come with no warning to ask me a great favor. What is this favor, and why should I perform it?”

I have skipped the character’s introduction and the sections identifying his name – I did, after all, submit this story for publication, so it would not do to spoil all of it.

But I hope you can see the contrast. The Faerie character makes a grand introduction, embellishing his speech with dramatic-sounding details and a certain romantic flavor. Lance cuts through the bullshit and gets to the heart of the matter without wasting time even on explanations. This is partially Lance’s character as well. He’s not a man who has time for games. Tolkien uses a similar trick (far more skillfully than I do, being Tolkien) in “The Lord of the Rings” to great effect, most famously during the wonderfully written Council of Elrond, a conversation Merry and Theoden have, and perhaps most successfully in this wonderful exchange between Sam and Faramir:

Sam hesitated for a moment, then bowing very low: ‘Good night, Captain, my lord,’ he said. ‘You took the chance, sir.’ ‘Did I so?’ said Faramir. ‘Yes sir, and showed your quality: the very highest.’ Faramir smiled. ‘A pert servant, Master Samwise. But nay: the praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.’

Sam’s dialogue is rustic and simple, distinctly hobbitish. Faramir’s is Tolkien’s iconic form of neo-archaic that I tried to roughly work toward in my Faerie character’s short speech. Simon defines it thus:

It is here that we see the first important appearance of the style that will predominate in the later ‘books’ of the tale. We might call it Tolkien’s neo-archaic style: it is archaic in tone and diction, but he carefully refrains (at this point) from using archaic words. Aragorn is the first major character to employ it in dialogue. He is a personage out of an older and nobler world: the leader, in fact, of the unseen protectors who have hitherto preserved the Shire. Once he enters the story, the narrative tone becomes more formal, the prose more cadenced. It is not yet archaic in the strict sense: the words are all familiar to us, except for proper names and a few words of Shire-dialect. But the sentence structure begins to approximate an older diction. It is beginning to be the language of the sagas, dignified, musical, and evocative.

Great speechmakers understand the power of such language; indeed, perhaps America’s two greatest oraators, Lincoln and Kennedy, used neo-archaic speech to great effect. From Lincoln’s justly famous second inaugural:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The structure of the sentence (for it is just one run-on sentence) is distinctly neo-archaic. “To care for him who shall have borne the battle” is far more evocative and poetic than “To take care of our country’s soldiers”,

(No, really, read the whole thing in full. Love or hate Lincoln, it is a masterful, beautifully written piece of work, moving, a touch bittersweet, and hopeful for the future. Lincoln could WRITE.)

Kennedy does something similar in his inaugural:

Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need–not as a call to battle, though embattled we are– but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”–a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Little wonder the people loved Kennedy. His speech in some ways can be the speech of King Arthur. As Simon points out, “Ask not what our country can do for you” is far more powerful than “Do not ask what your country can do for you” – and the reference to a trumpet calling us to struggle is a stroke of genius connecting our relatively young nation with a historic past that doesn’t even exist. Kennedy reached for the archaic while carefully using words that could be understood by us moderns, and the result is a masterpiece of rhetoric. Like Lincoln, you can think what you want of him as President, but he was a hell of a fine writer.

The big pitfall to avoid is lack of consistency. Simon points out the problem of what he calls Fantasyland prose in “Death Carries a Camcorder”:

And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home.

This is a problem I am acutely aware of. My motivations are different than Fantasyland motivations – My characters speak the way they do because they ARE from Poughkeepsie, though perhaps my version of Pughkeepsie is a  bit closer to Faerie than out own. Mine is not the traditional Tolkienien “Lord of the Rings” style fantasy – in fact, like much of my work, it blends genres.

However, I am also making the point that those from Faerie speak like denizens of Faerie. We have my character mentioned above – and the dialogue of Morgan le Fey will be written in a similar, though darker, neo-Archaic fashion.

So this is my goal: to tell the story in the style of its setting and to have my characters speak in a style that fits their individual characters and the environments that shaped them. Whether or not I succeed is up to the reader, not myself.

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