The scene above is not an original idea, but is imitative of an essay on fantasy writing that is almost fifty years old.
In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin published From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she argued for the importance of style in writing, and especially in the writing of high fantasy. Elfland is the name she used—following Lord Dunsany—for what Tolkien called Faerie: it is Middle-earth, Prydain, and many other locales; as for Poughkeepsie, she offered a comparison to national parks. As these became more popular tourist venues, more people would travel to these parks, fully equipped with enough modern conveniences that they never really go anywhere. They can feel at home, “just as if they were back in Poughkeepsie.”
She lamented that at the time of her writing, too many new fantasy writers were building the equivalents of trailer parks with drive-in movies. “But the point about Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie. It’s different.” If anything, in this post-Dungeons-and-Dragons and post-video-game world, things have not improved.
She then offered a passage from a then-recent fantasy novel—the sort with twentieth-century people wearing 14th-century clothes and doing magic—and then, by only changing a few names and locations, showed that the same passage would be just as familiar in a modern political thriller, similar to our opening scene above.
“Now, I submit that something has gone wrong. The book from which I first quoted is not fantasy, for all its equipment of heroes and wizards. If it was fantasy, I couldn’t have pulled the dirty trick on it by changing four words. You can’t clip Pegasus’ wings that easily—not if he has wings.”From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s argument is that, in fantasy writing, style is not merely an ingredient of a book, something added on, but it is the book. “If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.” In a cinematic drama1, of course, there is more than verbal style at play. The visual arts—sets, costumes, location photography, props, music, and so on—are very important stylistic components. Still, in another sense they are just illustrations that support, but cannot replace the style of the words. “Merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative,” as Pooh-bah said.
If the script is good, it should be just as good as a radio drama, perhaps with some well-written narration to replace those illustrations. I will refer to “the reader” in this article; this may be considered shorthand for “the reader or audience.”
Tolkien himself had much to say about the craft of transporting the reader to Faerie in his important essay On Fairy-stories. He proposed that any good story (of any genre) must be capable of creating actual belief in the world it creates, not merely suspension of disbelief:
What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside.On Fairy-stories, J.R.R. Tolkien
He then discussed Fantasy, the creation of images of a world unlike ours, with things that cannot be found in our world at all. He gave an example, saying that the fantastic device of language lets us say things like, “the green sun,” but that:
To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.On Fairy-stories, J.R.R. Tolkien
But what is the realm of Elfland, and why does it take such extraordinary artistry to bring a reader into that world? Tolkien tells us:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them.On Fairy-stories, J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien portrayed this idea in his poem The Sea-bell and in his last book, Smith of Wootton Major; do read these. Le Guin said much the same thing but takes it a step further:
It is a different approach to reality, an alternative technique for apprehending and coping with existence. It is not antirational but pararational; not realistic, but surrealistic, superrealistic, a heightening of reality. In Freud’s terminology, it employs primary, not secondary process thinking. It employs archetypes, which, Jung warned us, are dangerous things. Dragons are more dangerous, and a good deal commoner, than bears. Fantasy is nearer to poetry, to mysticism, and to insanity than naturalistic fiction is. It is a real wilderness, and those who go there should not feel too safe. And their guides, the writers of fantasy, should take their responsibilities seriously.From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, Ursula K. Le Guin
Thus, if we are to avoid leaving the reader in the Primary World, the language itself, that “fantastic device”, must act as the cicerone for this dream journey. Le Guin gave examples of appropriate prose: from Eddison‘s The Worm Ouroboros with its carefully-crafted Elizabethan prose; Kenneth Morris, with his less ornate but still mannered dialogue in Book of the Three Dragons; and Tolkien.
“Who can tell?” said Aragorn, “But we will put it to the test one day.”The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
“May the day not be too long delayed,” said Boromir. “For though I do not ask for aid, we need it. It would comfort us to know that others fought also with all the means that they have.”
“Then be comforted,” said Elrond.
It is important to notice that Tolkien does not use especially archaic speech here. Le Guin described the speech as, “a less extraordinary English; or rather an English extraordinary for its simple timelessness…it is the language of men of character.” She did not argue for archaic speech, but for speech that is appropriate to the subject matter, and indicative of the character of the speakers, who should not think like accountants and video-gamers.
Tolkien had much to say on this link between language, thought, and character. In a letter to Hugh Brogan (Letter #171, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) he responded to that reader’s criticisms of the archaic narration in The Two Towers, which Brogan had described as “tushery”.
This letter is worth reading in its entirety, but Tolkien addressed “tushery” as the “bogus ‘medieval’ stuff with … expletives, such as tush, pish, zounds, marry, and the like,” and observes that real archaic English is more concise than “our slack and often frivolous idiom”.
In doing so, he examined the specific case of Théoden’s conversation with Gandalf (“Nay, Gandalf! You do not know your own skill in healing” et seq.).
First pointing out that it is actually “moderated or watered archaism” compared to a more authentically antique diction (“Nay, thou n’wost not thine own skill in healing,”2), he then added that even though much of the speech could be translated to a modern idiom, “Not at all my dear Gandalf…” the thought that ends it , “Thus shall I sleep better,” would not translate well to the modern idiom because a king who speaks in a modern idiom would simply not think in terms of sleeping quietly in his grave.
We see a similar disconnect in the Rings of Power speech with which we began.
Lords of Elfland do not think of expanding work-forces and project deadlines, and for them to speak of such matters is a disunity of language and character. The spell has broken, and the art has failed: we are back in Poughkeepsie. There are many examples of modernisms that have crept into the dialogue: hobbits who say, “Okay,” “It means, like, what we do,” and, “That’s not who we are.” Númenoreans who say, “Nah,” and, “Míriel has her up for tea?” Elves who say “conflicted”. Dwarves who say, “Yeah.” Even grade-school grammatical errors, “Your people have no king, for you are him,” (a sentence that was walking along just fine before it fell on its face at the last word).
There are almost too many examples to count, and they pop up at random in the midst of more timeless speech. Some are more jarring than others—especially the name-calling like “Elf-lover!”—but none of them belong in a tale of the fantastic, except perhaps as Orc-talk.
Overcompensating for modernism is, of course, an equally dangerous trap. Le Guin and Tolkien both objected to “tushery” and pseudo-archaic speech. Imitating the elevated register of dialogue from Tolkien’s writing is perilous.
Le Guin noted that young fantasy writers sense that their language must distance the tale from the ordinary, but don’t know how to do it, fumbling with “thee” and “thou” and overusing words like “mayhap”. To their credit, the writers of The Rings of Power, do not fall into this trap.
Instead, however, these Elves too frequently lapse into High Aphorism. “It is said the wine of victory is sweetest for those in whose bitter trials it has fermented.” You have to read that twice to figure out what it is saying. “Most wounds to our bodies heal of their own accord, so, it is their labor instead to render hidden truths as works of beauty. For beauty has great power to heal the soul.” All right, if you say so; but it doesn’t sound helpful for a broken leg. And of course:
Do you know why a ship floats and a stone cannot? Because the stone sees only downward. The darkness of the water is vast and irresistible. The ship feels the darkness as well, striving moment by moment to master her and pull her under. But the ship has a secret. For unlike the stone, her gaze is not downward but up. Fixed upon the light that guides her, whispering of grander things than darkness ever knew.The Rings of Power, Amazon Studios
Not only is this pretentious and sententious (if lovely), but it forgets that the Noldor know more about the natural world, about the forces of gravity and buoyancy and density and displacement, than we do. Their “magic” comes from this deeper understanding. Instead of knowledge (which is what the word Noldor means!) we get fortune-cookie philosophy that sounds like we just need better-trained stones.
‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder.
‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. Yet they are garments, not armour, and they will not turn shaft or blade.’The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
There is a fine line between elegant speech and pretentiousness. The Rings of Power stumbles across that line too often; and perhaps without knowing exactly why, we are jerked back to the Primary World, because we know, somehow, that Elves don’t really talk like that.
Such considerations, of course, apply to any genre, such as real-world historical stories—at least, those taking place in a setting in which fairly modern English is spoken.
If I were writing a novel or screenplay taking place at, say, a New England boys’ prep school in 1905, I would not only have to take into account things like clothing, music, technology, or the rules for football, but I would have to give the boys speech appropriate to the time, with usages like “kick” for “complain”, “bully” for approval, or, “You make me tired!” for disapproval. And I would also have to assiduously avoid letting the boys say anachronistic things like, “epic”, “iconic”, “I’m still processing this”, “cool”, or… “That’s not who we are.”
If I were particularly careful, I would research then-new usages like, “Okay,” “Yeah,” or “Wow,” before putting them into the mouths of my characters.
It takes real work to get such things right. Without that work, even a non-specialist reader might sense that something is off-pitch, without knowing why, and will not believe in the story.
But such a story is not required to transport us to Elfland; only to (historical) Poughkeepsie. Elfland is a far more perilous realm, with deeper delights and dangers for both the reader and writer. Surely, then, a well-paid script editor can be employed to apply at least as meticulous a reading to the dialogue of a drama taking place in such a well-known and well-loved corner of Elfland as Middle-earth?
: It is not at all clear that there is any longer a useful distinction between “movies” and “television” and “streaming” in such discussions.
: Incidentally, this is very similar to the writing of early fantasist William Morris.
In the above essay, Staffer Ostadan references a number of key early fantasists whose works pre-date and influenced Tolkien. Some of these works now exist freely in the Public Domain. Interested readers who might care to explore these works further can find and enjoy them as free downloads on Project Gutenburg.
- E.R. Eddission: The Worm Ouroboros. First published 1922.
- Lord Dunsany: The King of Elfland’s Daughter. First published 1924.
- William Morris: The House of the Wolflings. First published 1889.
Kenneth Morris’s Book of the Three Dragons was published in 1930 and is not yet available in the Public Domain. Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series was published between 1964 and 1968. Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie seems to be available through Amazon in limited quantities, but it is very expensive.