Fiction, Uncategorized

Anachronism of Tone

Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey was a revelation to me. Her translation was in plain modern English, and removed some of the traditions of the past, such as calling slaves “handmaidens” or abusing Helen of Troy with dubious authority. It also stuck close to the text, its greatest departure being the reduction of the use of heroic epithets, which are a nuisance on the page. I enjoyed reading Wilson so much that when I heard that Maria Dahvana Headley was supposed to be doing the same for Beowulf, I immediately reserved a copy before its release. Unfortunately, instead of new insights into a classic, what I came away with an appreciation of the importance of tone – not just in translation, but in historical and fantasy fiction as well.

For some reason, Headley became infatuated with the idea that the heroic culture of Beowulf could be compared with the current Bro culture. This idea seems dubious even to my haphazard scholarship, for the simple reason that the heroic culture is all about the social obligations between war leaders and their followers. The leaders set an example, and reward followers with treasure and feasting, and in return follows imitate the leaders and show loyalty. By contrast, so-called Bro culture is about a freedom from obligations. Moreover, as Beowulf‘s text itself shows, the culture it depicts is artistic and sophisticated — traits completely foreign to Bro culture.The only way that Bro culture resembles the heroic culture is in its partying, although in Bro culture, partying is an end in itself, while in the culture of the poem, feasting is a reward for what someone has done.

This difference might not have mattered much, had Headley chosen a consistent tone. But the trouble is, Beowulf only has some passages that might be plausibly be compared to Bro culture. Much of the rest is description and musings on how to live. This variety means that Headley’s translation careens from one tone to another. She hedges, throwing in the language of Bros where it doesn’t belong, but the problem of inconsistency remains.

From the way she talks in her introduction, Headley seems to believe that she has done something clever. Sadly, though, her lines are more often unintentionally humorous, particularly when Headley sacrifices clarity and sense for alliteration. The difficulty begins right in the first line, where the Old English “Hwaet!” – an untranslatable call for attention – is replaced with “Bro!” Almost immediately, the founder of the Danish royal line is described as having “spent his youth fists up /browbeating every barstool-brother” and having “bootstrapped his way into a / kingdom.” With the introduction of barstools and the modern “bootstrapped,” the heroic tone is dissolved in laughter (and, of course, the fighting is not simply browbeating, nor are brothers the one being fought, although the alliteration sounds superficially impressive).

But it gets worse. Using “to daddy” as a synonym of “to rule,” Headley tells us that a “boy can’t daddy until his daddy’s dead.” At another point, readers are told that Beowulf “gave zero shits,” and has him dismiss his accomplishments as “no big whoop.” The last time I saw so many anachronisms in a single work was when I read George MacDonald Fraser’s The Pyrates – and, unlike Headley, Fraser was deliberately being funny. What Headley intended is harder to comprehend, although if she hoped that her choice of language would make Beowulf to teenagers, she is fated to be disappointed. By the time she describes treasure as “bling,” wrestlers as being “on the mat,” or the dead as “goners,” even the most sympathetic reader of any age is likely to be on the floor, doubled over with laughter. As for lines like, “Bros, lemme tell you how fucked they were,” they are positively dangerous to those with heart conditions. But these tone-deaf lines appear throughout, until Headley ends with “He was the man” and the reader flees in relief.

None of this would matter, of course, if Headley work was presented as a riff on the original. After all, the ahistoricity of Hamilton does not stop us from enjoying it as a romp. The trouble is, Headley claims to present a translation, which implies (or ought to imply) an effort at accuracy or at least an impression that bears some relation to the original.

To be fair, though, Headley’s Beowulf is only an extreme example. If you are going to set a story in the Middle Ages, or at least a fantasy version of the Middle Ages, you cannot, of course, write in Old or Middle English, nor even Shakespeare’s Early Modern English. Practically no one will understand you. Nor, if you are writing fantasy, does your imaginary world have to be an exact copy of the historical one. But you do need to settle on a consistent tone and maintain it. For example, Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist,” reads nothing like most fictional versions of Ancient Greece because he uses English translations of all the personal and place names. However, his tone is consistent, and readers soon learn to accept it.

Whatever your choice, a credible tone needs consistency, If you are writing medieval fantasy, you can avoid the mistakes of other writers and avoid avoid anachronisms like “okay” – a word that probably didn’t come into use before 1800 – and obvious mistakes like metaphors about cannons before they existed. You can also steer clear of garderobes graced with porcelain fixtures or nobility that goes clubbing. Otherwise your fragile efforts at drama or suspense will be swept away by laughter at your own expense.

General Writing

Why Mood Matters in a Story

Writing about writing is hard. Everything from world-building and outlining to opening hooks and sentence length has been covered so many times that finding some useful tidbit to add sometimes seems impossible. The truth is, though, that most articles repeat the same banalities and half-truths and plenty of room remains for originality. More importantly, some topics are never covered at all. As someone who started as a poet, I particularly notice the lack of discussion about mood (or atmosphere or tone, if you prefer). Perhaps as a result of this lack, many modern novels come across as flat and distant. So far as mood is created, it is usually by accident, with little control.

By “mood,” I mean the feeling that a passage invokes in a reader. In fantasy, mood used to be so common that it was a defining feature. Fantasy was supposed to be about sense of wonder, whether of awe or terror. The classic fantasies of Lord Dunsany or E. R. Eddison were all about leaving readers breathless in their descriptions of settings and events. As late as Tolkien, mood was an essential part of fantasy. Think of Tolkien’s home-like Shire, or the twilight glories of Rivendell and Lothlorien, or the wasteland that is Mordor, and you will understand immediately what I mean. The descriptions of these places are as important as the characters and plots. They are a main reason why some readers fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. A poet himself, Tolkien offers readers a poet’s eye view of his world.

Yet as fantasy has gained in popularity, mood has been de-emphasized. Part of the problem may be the amount of generic fantasy published. By definition, generic fantasy concentrates on the more superficial aspects — imitators copy elves and orcs more often than Tolkien’s worldbuilding or writing style. Another problem may be that blockbuster movies and games have made fantasy fiction a genre of action or plot, with less attention being paid to subtler aspects like mood. When attention is paid to mood, it is usually to admire the animation or green screen effects, rather than the audience’s response to special effects. As a result, mood has all but disappeared in fiction. With the emphasis on plot, mood is viewed as extraneous to the art of storytelling.

I find this state of affairs unfortunate (by which I mean, comparable to an alien invasion or a tidal wave followed by Godzilla’s relatives arriving all at once for a family reunion). Not using mood is as odd as writing an entire novel without using the letter “e”: you can do it, but why limit yourself so arbitrarily? Especially when the result is so unsatisfactory?

If you doubt what I say, take The Return of the King from the shelf and open it to “The Battle of Pelennor Fields.” The chapter describes the siege of the city of Minas Tirith by the forces of Mordor. The city is vastly outnumbered and waiting for allies who may not come. Detail after detail accumulate to create a feeling of hopelessness. As the chapter ends, Gandalf the wizard confronts the Lord of the Nazgûl, who mocks him and promises destruction. Things could not get any worse. Then:

And in that very moment, away behind in some courtyard of the city, a cock crowed. Shrill and clear he crowed, recking nothing of war nor of wizardry, welcoming only the morning that in the sky far above the shadows of death was coming with the dawn.

And as if in answer there came from far away another note. Horns, horns, horns, in dark Mindolluin’s sides they dimly echoed. Great horns of the north wildly blowing. Rohan had come at last.

Just like that, the mood of despair, that keeps readers turning the pages with growing apprehension, is replaced by relief with a sentence of five words. The entire chapter, and especially the ending, is a masterpiece of mood control, and proof enough of the importance of mood. I would call it the best writing Tolkien ever did.

But how do you capture some of the same power in your own writing? I have no idea how Tolkien did it, but I have found a technique that works for me. I start by deciding what mood I want to create, and reduce that mood to a single word, such as grief or relief or strangeness. Then I open up the thesaurus and note all the synonyms for that word.

However, I do not use that word, nor any of its synonyms. Besides being unsubtle, that would simply not work. You do not create a mood of horror by using the word “horrible.”

Instead, as I write, I try to choose words and descriptions that create that word. For instance, to give an unsubtle example, to invoke grief I might mention shadow and night, and funeral hymns. Possibly, I might choose a viewpoint of someone who grieves. One word, one phrase at a time, I work, and, if I am successful, a reader will receive the impression I want. If I want to orchestrate a change in mood, as Tolkien does, I repeat the process, and figure how I want to make the transition from one mood to another. In effect, choosing the word is a form of outlining, but for mood instead of actions.

Sometimes, the effect is as simple as a simile or a metaphor. For instance, if I write, “Silence spread like a stain,” the comparison carries a hint of the ominous, of something out of control and wrong. At other times, the effect works through an accumulation of details. For instance, in describing a keep, I could have written simply

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire.

However, I wanted to create a sense of the uncanny, so I wrote:

He remembered now that the cellars and parts of the curtain wall were older still. Built by Valicon’s legions, most said, to mark the north-eastern end of an empire. Giant-built, said others, pointing at the outsized stones. Built by others, harpers said when the fire was reduced to ember. Other folk, human only by whim.

The additional two sentences and fragment steadily move readers from history to legend, to hints of the supernatural — to ghost stories. And with their addition, a snippet of info-dump suddenly becomes more interesting.

Strictly speaking, mood is unnecessary to the story. Yet by working to create it, writers can add to readers’ experience. It may even be the case that, when readers remember a scene or re-read a story, the reason may be that they have been struck by the mood.