Sunday, November 20, 2011

Style in Fantasy

In an earlier post I cited Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” as an antidote to mythopoeic dualism. In this essay, after considering a number of examples illustrating the role of style in fantasy—and the penalty paid by those who neglect it—Le Guin concludes:
Many readers, many critics, and most editors speak of style as if it were an ingredient of a book, like the sugar in a cake, or something added onto the book, like the frosting on the cake. The style, of course, is the book. If you remove the cake, all you have left is a recipe. If you remove the style, all you have left is a synopsis of the plot.*

This is partly true of history; largely true of fiction; and absolutely true of fantasy.

In saying that the style is the book, I speak from the reader’s point of view. From the writer’s point of view, the style is the writer. Style isn’t just how you use English when you write. It isn’t a mannerism or an affectation (though it may be mannered or affected). It isn’t something you can do without, though that is what people assume when they announce that they intend to write something “like it is.” You can’t do without it. There is no “is,” without it. Style is how you as a writer see and speak. It is how you see: your vision, your understanding of the world, your voice.
This expresses my own view of the matter perfectly. (It also echoes E. B. White’s concluding remarks in The Elements of Style.) But Le Guin goes on to form a conjecture as to the precise role of style in fantasy, and this, I feel, is where she comes up short.
[W]hy is style of such fundamental importance in fantasy?... I think it is, because in fantasy there is nothing but the writer’s vision of the world. There is no borrowed reality of history, or current events, or just plain folks at Peyton Place. There is no comfortable matrix of the commonplace to substitute for the imagination, to provide ready-made emotional responses, and to disguise flaws and failures of creation. There is only a construct built in a void, with every joint and seam and nail exposed. To create what Tolkien calls “a secondary universe” is to make a new world. A world where no voice has ever spoken before; where the act of speech is the act of creation. The only voice that speaks there is the creator’s voice. And every word counts.
Surely this can’t be all there is to it. Such a necessity would call for exhaustive descriptions but not for a distinctive style. There are plenty of terse ordinary novels about remote times or exotic places, while some of the best fantasies take place in settings that are more or less familiar. The fantasy-writer’s skill is perhaps most apparent in his or her ability to use familiar things to evoke unfamiliar responses. Think of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, for instance. Most of it unfolds against a backdrop drawn from European topography. The Shire was based on the English Midlands, the Misty Mountains on the Alps, and Ithilien on the Mediterranean countries. In fact, Tolkien’s use of extraordinary settings is rather sparing. What sets him apart from so many imitators is that he is able to cast an aura of beauty and mystery about the ordinary good things of life. But this, he says, is one of the primary roles of fantasy: Recovery.
By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. And actually fairy-stories deal largely, or (the better ones) mainly, with simple or fundamental things, untouched by Fantasy, but these simplicities are made all the more luminous by their setting. For the story-maker who allows himself to be “free with” Nature can be her lover not her slave. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
The problem is not that trees, etc., are flat in fantasy if not properly described, for trees are flat in many types of good, ordinary novels. The problem is that flat trees simply are not allowable in fantasy. Fantasy is the branch of literature in which we care about the trees. Not because they are supernatural or extraordinary, &c., but simply because they are. Perhaps supernaturality is merely a way of heightening what most affects us, or should affect us, about real trees. Clearly style plays a crucial role this. Not even the most exhaustive description is enough; in fact, it is probably a great deal too much. What is needed is the gift of seeing combined with a touch of magic.

Where the mass-produced clones spawned by the advent of the fantasy genre fall short is in taking the typical devices of fantasy as ends in themselves. As Le Guin saw so clearly, weakness in style vitiates the pleasurability of these devices. But the devices themselves must be oriented as directed by the work as a whole, as a work of fantasy. They are but material elements subservient to an art that aims at a certain type of beauty. The writer who fails to comprehend this merely manipulates material elements, forming something lightly entertaining to a certain type of reader but banal and superficial.

*Which itself can never be entirely divorced from style, in my opinion. —raphordo

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