More WF 2008 Convention

The Language of Fantasy – panel – Carol Berg, C. L. Wilson, Farah Mendlesohn, Kay Kenyon.

This panel opened my eyes to the deeper aspects of writing fantasy. When I started my fantasy novel, Rast, I jumped in with both feet and carved my own path, learning from mistakes along the way. As I usually do. Perhaps I’m lucky that this process resulted in a novel of which a publisher said, “I like it. A lot.”

To set the tone of the panel I should mention the frequent references to the proscenium arch, which to me at that time, meant only that it sounded very old and very Greek. The term refers to the forward part of the theatre stage, today that portion forward of the curtain toward the audience and in ancient Greece the whole structure of arch or arches forming the rear of the stage. You might guess I learned a great many new things in the panel – and in reading Farah Mendlesohn’s book, “Rhetorics of Fantasy” that I was able to buy in the dealer’s room. Actually, in this account, my memory of the panel is probably aided and coloured by my reading of that.

What does proscenium arch mean for the language of fantasy? My understanding, such as it is, leads to the  comparison between the presentation of the mythical or fantastic quality of the story and the normal world of the reader. One goes to the theatre as one’s self, sits in the relative safety of the audience while the created illusion of the production unfolds before one’s eyes across the other side of the proscenium arch – an involving experience yet safely separate. In fiction it refers to the separation between creation and audience, the page and the mind – the separation the writer must coax the reader to forget if he or she is to become immersed in story.

The language in which fantasy is written must draw the reader across that arch and into the story world. To this end, the demotic language of the crime thriller or adventure often gives way to some level of elegiac or elevated language. Somehow I had instinctively done this when I started Rast – it seemed to me that the story came with its own language. Luckily my local writing group was run by a poet who was quickly able to bring my elegiac excesses back to earth. The language of the commons, demotic or ordinary, is used in fantasy only to present the fantastic as familiar. As Farah Medlesohn said, “There are no fixed rules, but every story demands an appropriate technique”.

It is acceptable to vary the language within the story according to the nature of the character who speaks or listens. It’s no surprise that each character has their own voice, but their perceptions also affect what they hear and understand. There also can be a level of the story that has to be discerned by the reader according to whether the character relating the information can be relied on to tell the truth or may deliberately or unknowingly contribute falsehoods.

The elevated tone of fantasy can extend far into other techniques the author might use. Metaphors tend to replace similes and some of the story meaning can be conveyed by allegory. The reader expects to be taken to a more fantastic place – Oz or Minas Tirith – where profound secrets are guarded and people wiser than ourselves interact. If the reader is completely captured by story then they might actually, for a short time, visit these extraordinary places and experience truths they would dismiss in real life. I know that I am only one of many readers who felt profoundly moved and given new insights many years ago by my first reading of “Lord of the Rings”.

This is not to say that elegiac language and a heightened sensibility is all fantasy needs. As in all story, the whole must fit seamlessly together. The language is the vessel that carries the reader into the story, but it cannot do this alone. The world building and premises must fit as well. A western could be rewritten as high fantasy, but it will fail if any trace of its origin escapes.

The panel imparted much more than a discussion of semantics. The language of fantasy is the medium through which arcane secrets are divulged and the author has many opportunities and much responsibility for the art he or she wields.


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