We were talking, my First Reader and I, about what to write for you Mad Geniuses. He suggested writing about old hats. Not literal hats, although it is a lot of fun to look at costume through the ages and see how fashions have changed. But what about writing? he asked, how can you pick up something that is old hat, knock the dust off, and create something fresh and new?
I’m not entirely sure you can, but it sparked another thought. Prose styles have changed over the years. What was once eminently readable and made for a book you could curl up with and while away an afternoon now reads leadenly, making it more work to read than it is worth.
I walked from the office into the library (well, sitting room, but it’s where the books are kept in our house) and called for him to follow me. I opened the hutch where I keep my antique books and started trying to decide where to start. The First Reader reached over my shoulder and tapped a spine. “Fantasy,” he suggested.
So we begin with a century-long voyage through time with fantastic tales, to see how prose has changed, and remember fondly stories that we may have outgrown, but affect us to this very day. Before the genre we call Fantasy came into being, there were fairy tales and folklore, like the collected tales that Andrew Lang put into the ‘color’ fairy books. I have a couple of these, and pulled The Red Fairy Book off my shelf. This was originally published in 1890.
“Well, I can’t stand it.’ says Koshchei the Deathless. ‘I will pursue.’
After a time he came up with Prince Ivan, lighted on the ground, and was going to chop him up with his sharp sword. But at that moment Prince Ivan’s horse smote Koshchei the Deathless full swing with its hoof, and cracked his skull, and the Prince made and end of him with a club. Afterwards the Prince heaped up a pile of wood, set fire to it, burnt Koshchei the Deathless on the pyre, and scattered his ashes to the wind. Then Marya Morevna mounted Koshchei’s horse and Prince Ivan got on his own, and they rode away to visit first the Raven, and then the Eagle, and then the Falcon. Wherever they went they met with a joyful greeting.
‘Ah, Prince Ivan! why, we never expected to see you again. Well, it wasn’t for nothing you gave yourself so much trouble. Such a beauty as Marya Morevna one might search for all the world over – ad never find one like her!'”
I have in my hands a 1920 edition of Arabian Nights. (If you’d like to see some of the illustrations from these two oldest books in the post, look here).
“The captain of the thieves, with a bag on his shoulder, came close to a rock, at the roots of the tree in which Ali Baba had hidden himself. Then he called out, “Open, Sesame!” Instantly a door in the rock opened; and the captain and all his men quickly passed in, and the door closed again. They stayed there for a long time. Meanwhile, Ali Baba was compelled to wait in the tree, as he was afraid some of them might see him if he left his hiding-place.
“At length the door opened, and the forty thieves came out. The captain stood at the door until all his men had passed out. Then Ali Baba heard him say, “Shut, Sesame!” Each man then bridled his horse and rode away.
“Ali Baba did not come down from the tree at once, because he thought the robbers might have forgotten something, and come back. He watched them for as long as he could, and did not leave the tree for a long time after he had lost sight of them. Then, remembering the words the captain had used to open and shut the door, he made his way to it, and called out, “Open, Sesame!” Instantly the door flew wide open!”
Now, despite the rather stiff writing style, I love that later in the story Ali Baba’s clever friend Morgiana boils the thieves in oil, but then again, I’ve been known to be a bit bloodthirsty.
In 1937 a little book called The Hobbit appeared in print for the first time, and the genre we now call epic, or classic, fantasy was born.
“So they laughed and sang in the trees; and pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it. Not that they would care; they would only laugh all the more if you told them so. They were elves or course. Soon Bilbo caught glimpses of them as the darkness deepened. He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too. Dwarves don’t get on well with them. Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a foolish thing to think), or get annoyed with them. For some elves tease them and laugh at them, and most of all their beards.”
I don’t know when the crossover genre of science fiction so far advanced as to become fantasy was born, but I know my favorite example of it is Glory Road by Robert A Heinlein, which originally appeared in 1963. I’ve quoted the roc’s egg passage recently, so here is a little more playful passage.
“Singing birds are better than alarm clocks, and Barsoom was never like this. I stretched happily and smelled coffee and wondered if there was time for a dip before breakfast. It was another perfect day, blue and clear and the sun just up, and I felt like killing dragons before lunch. Small ones, that is.
I smothered a yawn and rolled to my feet. The lovely pavilion was gone and the black box mostly repacked; it was no bigger than a piano box. Star was kneeling before a fire, encouraging that coffee. She was a cave-woman this morning, dressed in a hide that was fancy but not as fancy as her own. From an ocelot, maybe. Or from Du Pont.
‘Howdy, Princess,’ I said. “What’s for breakfast?”
Here we see that the prose and story-telling begin to become more informal, more natural to the way people spoke and interacted on a daily basis. Or maybe they really did talk like that back in the turn of the century, but somehow I doubt it.
Bringing the stories up to a much more modern, and funny, standard, I have Terry Pratchett’s Mort in my hand now.This was published in 1987, but his tales of Ankh-Morporkh are somehow timeless, as they capture humanity with all its warts, and sometimes regret that capture, as you will see; his characters are not always housebroken.
“‘And they was kings in those days, real kings, not like the sort you get now. They was monarchs,”continued Albert, carefully pouring some tea into his saucer and fanning it primly with the end of his muffler. “I mean, they was wise and fair, well, fairly wise. And they wouldn’t think twice about cutting your head off soon as look at you,” he nodded approvingly. “And the queens were tall and pale and wore them balaclava helmet things -“
“Wimples?” Mort asked.
“Yeah, them, and the princesses were beautiful as the day is long, and so noble they, they could pee through a dozen mattresses -”
Marching forward with time, we come to the book published in , a random one of my Dresden File books, Proven Guilty. Urban fantasy, as Butcher writes it, is night to the day of Tolkein, but still, as you will see, with common threads drawing them together in the genre tapestry.
She prowled across the room to us, all hips and lips and fascinating eyes, looking far too young to move with such wanton sensuality. I knew better. She could have been a century old. She chose to look the way she did because of what she was: the Winter Lady, youngest Queen of Unseelie Court, Mab’s understudy in wickedness and power. When she walked by the flowers that bloomed in Lily’s presence, they froze over, withered, and died. She gave them no more notice than Lily had.
“Harry Dresden,” she said, her voice low, lulling, and sweet.”
And I said, “Hello, Maeve.”
So what do you all think? Is the old worn out and needing to be discarded? I don’t believe so. Rejuvenated with modern language, perhaps. Retellings of old stories are something I enjoy, as I have done a version of Little Red Riding Hood which I really ought to expand on. And I could keep pulling books off my shelf for hours, but the First Reader is sitting here patiently reading Daniel Hood’s A Familiar Dragon and waiting for my attention. Time to spend some real-life time outside the covers of a book, methinks.