Here’s something I meant to include in my recent review of Poul Anderson’s Mother of Kings, but left out because the thing was long enough. This way I can make another whole post out of it, which saves me thinking up a new idea.
(By the way, it just occurred to me, how come it’s “Poul Anderson” and not “Poul Andersen?” He was Danish, and the standard ending for Danish patronymics is “sen.” I suppose it can be traced back to some culturally insensitive immigration official, like the one who made the Kvalevaags into Walkers).
Anyway, I wrote that I found Mother of Kings kind of dull. I gave a couple reasons, but left one out. It involves what I consider a common problem in novels about Vikings and in heroic fantasy in general.
The book was clunky.
Clunkiness is a characteristic that’s (like pornography) hard to define, but I know it when I see it. The characters in a clunky novel move around and say things (usually in the author’s idea of antique diction), but they somehow don’t come alive to the reader. The reader finds a great gulf fixed between himself and the characters, and try as he will he can’t identify with them. A book can have great verisimilitude and nevertheless be clunky. You can understand why the characters act as they do, but you just don’t care.
Wagnerian opera is clunky (doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the music). Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is (I believe) clunky (to the modern reader). William Hope Hodgson’s Night Land is my personal epitome of a clunky book (though C. S. Lewis admired aspects of it), and if you’ve never read it I’d say don’t waste your time, even if you can find a copy.
This is (I think) as much our fault (or our age’s) as it is the author’s. A clunky book isn’t necessarily a bad book. There’s a certain clunkiness to the poems of Homer (though I suspect it’s better if you can savor the original Greek). I’m sure many people find the Icelandic sagas clunky (though I contend they’re remarkably un-clunky considering their date of composition). Clunkiness tends to go with heroic stories. People and ages that value and promote heroism don’t find them clunky. Unfortunately we live in an age that values and promotes cynicism.
So the modern author who wants to write non-clunkily needs to build a bridge to his reader.
Probably the greatest literary bridge in any heroic literature is Tolkien’s hobbits. The theme of the trilogy isn’t really the story of the Shire and its inhabitants. It’s about the Rings of Power and fate of the elves and the end of the Third Age. Tolkien could have written the story “straight” and it would have been good, but it wouldn’t have reached millions of readers.
Ever read The Silmarillion? That’s Middle Earth without hobbits. Not a bad book, but on its own it wouldn’t sell a lot of tee-shirts.
Hobbits are the modern characters in The Lord of the Rings. In spite of their size and their furry feet, they’re basically like you and me. By throwing them into the story, and making them central to the action, Tolkien built a bridge—a glorious, shining suspension bridge—over to his readers, giving them a door latch that allowed them to enter the narrative, internalize the story, and appreciate the heroism, almost as a revelation.
A tremendous achievement.
I like to think I do something of the same sort, in my small way, with Father Ailill in my Erling books.
Most modern writers, dealing with heroic subjects, connect with their readers by tearing down the heroes (T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, which I nevertheless love, is such a book. That was White’s purpose, and he did it well). But the writer who wants to promote and encourage heroism has a harder job.
Want to write a non-clunky story that will inspire your readers to higher things? Find a bridge.
Anderson could have used one.