Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Examining the “Poughkeepsieness” of Other Authors

While reading LeGuin's analysis of fantasy language and during the class discussion, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that most people gloss over Tolkien's subtle ways of differentiating his characters and cultures through their dialect. He accomplishes an impressive amount of characterization without the reader realizing that characters are being developed. In my post, I will be examining--though certainly, I'm sure, I won't prove as linguistically adept as Shippey--the ability of other, modern fantasy authors (all of whom I consider "good fantasy writers") to create characters using tone and style, and whether these other authors write in "Poughkeepsie style" or "Elfland style".

The first book I examine is one of my current favorites, and a series to which I eagerly await the concluding volume: The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss.

I absolutely adore The Name of the Wind (the first book in the series). I find it easy to read, yet wonderfully engrossing and transporting. It has a magic system which makes sense and is believable, all of which aids in transporting the reader to the world. In terms of creating an "inner consistency of reality," I give it top marks. However, most of Rothfuss's dialogue fails LeGuin's "trick". For example,
“I’m surprised I haven’t noticed,” I mused as I watched her talking to one of the other women in the crowd. “So am I,” Manet said with a low, knowing chuckle. “But she’s not here very often. She sculpts and works with cut tile and glass. She’s here for the equipment, not the sygaldry.” (From Name of the Wind, Chapter 62, Leaves)
One of the great elements of The Name of the Wind is that it primarily deals not with nobles but with students and children. Yet, these are still members of Elfland, and they should speak with the accent--a low accent, but an accent nevertheless--according to LeGuin. The same passage can be transposed to any college or high school in the real world as LeGuin did for DC and Capitol Hill:
“I’m surprised I haven’t noticed,” I mused as I watched her talking to one of the other women in the crowd. “So am I,” Mark said with a low, knowing chuckle. “But she’s not here very often. She sculpts and works with cut tile and glass. She’s here for the equipment, not the instruction.”
With the change of only two words, the passage could be fit to a countless number of collegiate art studios. Comparing that to the closest relatives to "normal people" in the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbits, talking about a similar thing, Rothfuss's "Poughkeepsie" style is made very obvious:
"Good, good!" cried Farmer Cotton. "So it's begun at last! ... And I've had the wife and Rosie to think of..." "What about Mrs. Cotton and Rosie?" said Sam. "It isn't safe yet for them to be left all alone." "My Nibs is with them. But you can go and help him, if you have a mind," said Farmer Cotton with a grin. (From Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 6, "The Scouring of the Shire") 
Trying to switch the last phrase--the most similar bit between the two passages, both hinting at a romance--from "But you can go and help him, if you have a mind" to something that sounds more modern is harder. "But you can go and help him, if you want" is perhaps the easiest, but that does lose some connotation. "But you can go help him, if you want" is perhaps the closest to conveying the same tone, but by then half of the sentence has been changed. "My Nibs" is a similarly tangled, Elfland phrase, as simply changing the name of Nibs does nothing to the archaism of "My ___" as a way of speaking about a person.

However, when Kvothe, the protagonist of The Name of the Wind, speaks with Denna, his romantic interest and a mysterious character, the language switches from Poughkeepsie to Elfland:
"Roses! I swear you men have all your romance from the same worn book. Flowers are a good thing, a sweet thing to give a lady. But it is always roses, always red, and always perfect hothouse blooms when they can come by them.” She turned to face me. “When you see me do you think of roses?" (From Name of the Wind, Chapter 62, Leaves)
Denna's speech is harder to turn into Poughkeepsie-speak. Despite talking about the same subject as a person dwelling in the real world could--there is no nobility or epicness in the subject of roses and wooing practices--Denna's words have a ring of solid fantasy to them. It is hard to even attempt to transpose the phrase "But it is always roses, always red, and always perfect hothouse blooms when they can come by them" into the way a modern speaker would say it. "It is always perfectly blooming red roses" cuts out most of the words, but "It is always red roses, and always perfect blooms when they can get them" still changes too much and doesn't sound quite right.

Certainly, Rothfuss fails at writing in a perpetual "Elfland" tone, but he does demonstrate that he can write that way when he desires to, making the blahness, the everdayness of his prose and dialogue an intentional choice. His characters are meant to be plainspoken, and although they verge on "too normal" in their speech, I feel that his Poughkeepsie speak does help a reader enter the world, while still providing the Elfland, fantasy tone with some of his other, less common characters.

The second book I examine is Brian Staveley's The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, the first book of which is The Emperor's Blades. This series is fantastic once you pass the beginning. The third book, The Last Mortal Bond, is exciting from start to finish. It begins slow, but picks up throughout the series and culminates wonderfully.

The first piece of dialogue I went to (again, using LeGuin's methodology of simply picking dialogue at random, rather than trying to cherry-pick) is from the the beginning of the first book, as the son of the Emperor, who is training with monks, is meeting with his new teacher and is asked to paint a memory of a goat who had been killed.
“This is what it is,” Tan replied. “Call it a test if you like, but the name is not the thing.” Kaden suppressed a groan. Whatever eccentricities Tan might possess, he spoke in the same infuriating gnomic pronouncements as the rest of the Shin.
“I don’t remember anything else,” Kaden said. “That’s the entire saama’an.” 
“It’s not enough,” Tan said, but this time he withheld the lash.
“It’s the entire thing,” Kaden protested. “The goat, the head, the pools of blood, even a few stray hairs that were stuck on a rock. I copied everything there.”
Tan did hit him for that. Twice. “Any fool can see what’s there,” the monk responded dryly. “A child looking at the world can tell you what is in front of him. You need to see what is not there. You need to look at what is not in front of you.” (From The Emperor's Blades, Chapter 1).
While Kaden, the protagonist, speaks fairly simply, the dialogue does create a class gap between them. Tan speaks with the tone of Elfland. If the same thing were taking place at a school that, for some reason, still allowed corporal punishment:
“This is what it is,” Tanner replied. “Call it a test if you like, but the name is not the thing.” Kaden suppressed a groan. Whatever eccentricities Tan might possess, he spoke in the same infuriating gnomic pronouncements as the rest of the teachers.
“I don’t remember anything else,” Kaden said. “That’s the entire painting.” 
“It’s not enough,” Tanner said, but this time he withheld the lash.
“It’s the entire thing,” Kaden protested. “The goat, the head, the pools of blood, even a few stray hairs that were stuck on a rock. I copied everything there.”
Tanner did hit him for that. Twice. “Any fool can see what’s there,” the monk responded dryly. “A child looking at the world can tell you what is in front of him. You need to see what is not there. You need to look at what is not in front of you.”
The changing the names and the fantasy babble (saama'an, Shin) do little to harm the Elfland tone of the people. Kaden's second quotation reads as might a hobbit or dwarf--still with an air of Elfland, despite the plainness of the speech. And Tan sounds nearly like Elrond, using archaisms and mysticisms.

Regardless, Staveley writes like this through the book, creating differences in class by his character's speech, without ever losing the vibe of Elfland.

Conclusion: Although I would have loved to examine Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora as well, I left my copy of that book at home, and I am running low on words. However, I am pleased to discovered the Staveley, at least, doesn't write in the style of Poughkeepsie--as his writing can be dense, at times, like Tolkien, but is ultimately still gripping--and that Rothfuss can consciously decide when he wants to use Poughkeepsie and when he wants to write in a "proper" fantasy tone. I have read bad fantasy (The Shadowdance Trilogy by David Dalglish), and although I can't pull quotes from them--again, I didn't bring the books to college--I remember thinking that the language didn't ever feel fantastic enough. It was obviously Poughkeepsie, and, as LeGuin says, we know when fantasy doesn't feel right far more easily than we know when it does.

-LTA

4 comments:

  1. An enjoyable post; I do wish I'd gotten to see your thoughts on Locke Lamora. I'm not familiar with Staveley's work, but I'm a big fan of Rothfuss, so I'll use that as my point of entry for my comments.

    Your assessment that Rothfuss's choice of tone at various points is intentional is a very good one. The Name of the Wind and its sequels are very much metafictional works dealing not only with the nature of fiction in general, but with the nature of fantasy in particular. The whole story is, in many ways, an "un-fairy tale"; the protagonist, Kvothe, is quite literally a living legend in the world of the story. He's a fantasy protagonist both in our world and in his own, and in a way equally fictional in both places. As such, the story is operating on three separate mimetic levels. First, you have the frame story of the Waystone Inn, where the comical realism and groundedness of the rustic patrons cannot help but remind one of Tolkien's own Gaffer Gamgee, and of the Hobbits more generally. Next, there's Kvothe's life story, as told in his own words. His words, tellingly, are for the most part not the words of a lord of Elfland, but of a "regular" person, because the whole intent of the story is to show the man behind the legend. However, there are flashes, glimpses, of the towering, heroic (or villainous) figure others see him as, especially when he talks about music, or the speaking of true names, and these form the bridge between this layer and the third: the various myths, legends, and fairy-stories which are scattered throughout the books, both the ones he hears and those, like Felurian, he encounters in the flesh. At this level, the accent of Elfland is very strong. I would not envy anyone the task of rendering Felurian's words into plain speech.

    From this deliberate arrangement of levels, we can see that The Name of the Wind is not, in fact, a story about Elfland as such at all, nor a story about Poughkeepsie. Rather, Rothfuss is writing about the cut between the two, the place where real people become fairy stories and fairy stories collapse into mundane reality. One could argue that this is not a novel development, that C. S. Lewis, for example, was exploring this same intermediate space when he put the door to Narnia in a wardrobe, but the truth is, the relationship of Narnia to the real world was always tenuous. The Pevensie children, returning from Narnia, are still children—wiser, perhaps, but no more grown, and when Susan ultimately does begin to grow, she isn't let back in.
    (1/2)

    ReplyDelete
  2. (2/2)
    So no, I would argue, classic fantasy didn't really explore the middle space, and confined itself mostly to Fairy proper. More recent fantasy, however—what certain critics might call 'postmodern fantasy,' though I'm not so sure of the classification—is obsessed with it. I recently read a wonderful interview with LeGuin (https://goo.gl/rXBNUP) in which she used the term "broadening" to describe what she seems as the most important literary development of the moment. I have to agree with her, especially with regards to my observations of where fantasy has been going in recent years. There are still writers, like George R. R. Martin, who work primarily in highly consistent, imagined worlds, with relatively tight tonal constraints, but more and more work is being done at Fairy's borders, where the real world seeps in. Rothfuss is of that camp, but probably the most famous practitioners are Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. Works like The Dark Tower or The Sandman are all about the breakdown of the walls between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. A gunslinger of Gilead, of the line of Arthur Eld, walks the streets of New York City, seeking bullets and mispronouncing the word "tuna." The King of Dreams checks into a roadside motel, opening the door to his room without a key. One can reimagine Tolkien in this mode: the Lady Galadriel walks into a Starbucks, orders a non-fat caramel macchiato, and pays for it with a phial containing the light of a Silmaril...

    Our professor might, perhaps, be at first inclined to describe such juxtapositions as a joke, and indeed they are often quite funny. However, such stories can make us cry as well as laugh—for all its jokey moments, Kelly Link's "The Faery Handbag" is not a humor story. So too other stories of this type. Nor can stories in this mode be written off as the sort of touristy fantasy LeGuin decries, because the whole point of them is that you aren't really going anywhere. What these border tales seek to tell you is that, in fact, you've been in Elfland all along. You simply have to keep an eye out for it.

    —Nathaniel Eakman

    ReplyDelete
  3. One thing that stands out to me about LeGuin's thesis on what fantasy does is that it's a "heightening of reality." In this lens, fantasy isn't just escapism (although it can have escapist elements), but it actually draws our attention to and says something deeply true about the world as we know it.

    It seems like one of the specific ways in which we see this heightening is in the nobility of these stories, both in the settings (grand, gorgeous landscapes, citadels, etc) and in the characters. One of the main functions of the Elfland style of dialogue is to make readers more aware of the nobility of certain characters, thus in the Staveley example we see not just a clear class gap, but also a difference in status of a different sort. I think this holds true even if the character in question isn’t a good one (I haven’t read Staveley): as Shippey mentions with the Boromir example (and as I think we see with Saruman and Denethor), characters can be flawed and yet still endowed with a noble quality which rings true to us.

    It seems that many of us fantasy readers are drawn to nobility, and are thrown off by fantasy that either avoids attempting it or does so poorly. I’m curious as to why that’s so – I think on some level this nobility is actually more real than the ironic language and style employed by so much “social realist” fiction. Paradoxically, despite low prose being more common and relatable, high prose may be more likely to engage us on a firmer, deeper level.

    Santi Ruiz

    ReplyDelete
  4. I like the idea of testing other writers for "Poughkeepsieness" to understand what Tolkien achieved. I agree with Santi: there is a definite tendency among fantasy readers to prefer nobility to common folk, which is ironic given how the critics describe fantasy readers. I think what Shippey shows us is that LeGuin's analysis needed fine-tuning: Elflords may speak one way, but hobbits speak another, and hidden kings (Aragon) speak in all styles. Do you find this mixture of styles in your chosen authors? RLFB

    ReplyDelete