Heroic fiction: Building bridges

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.

7 thoughts on “Heroic fiction: Building bridges”

  1. I’m not sure it’s only modern authors who tear down heroes. Greek tragedy is full of heroes with a fatal flaw.

  2. Showing flaws isn’t the same thing as debunking. All well-drawn characters ought to have flaws; otherwise they’re cardboard. The difference is in whether you define the character in terms of his flaws or his virtues.

  3. All heroes have flaws. But Greek tragedy seems to define heroes as their flaws. Oedipus is first and foremost his father’s killer and his mother’s lover. The fact he also saved Thebe from the sphinx is almost irrelevant. Creon caused the suicides of his son and wife. That is what most of the Antigone is about. The fact his leadership also saved Thebes from conquest by the enemy is again secondary.

    Father Ailill has flaws. But he overcomes them. In Greek tragedy, the flaws overcome the heroes. That’s what makes it debunking, IMHO.

  4. That’s interesting. I think we may have an irreducible disagreement here. I don’t think the heroes of Greek tragedy are defined by their flaws. They’re doomed by their flaws, but it’s the fact that they’re understood to be great and (generally) virtuous that gives pathos and universality to their deaths. We don’t rejoice in their deaths, as when a villain dies. We’re filled with sorrow over the brokenness, not only of those individuals, but of ourselves and the world as a whole.

  5. It could be that I don’t understand Greek tragedy – I never really enjoyed it. I prefer stories like King David, where the hero sins, repents, takes his lumps, and is done with that.

  6. Yes, the biblical stories are different. They’re about redemption (or at least the possibility of redemption). Which wasn’t part of the Greek system. But I see tragedies in Scripture too. The story of Saul, for instance, seems to me a formidable tragedy, a tale of greatness (even goodness), a fatal flaw and final disaster. Remember the story in 1 Samuel 31, where the men of Jabesh-Gilead (whom Saul had delivered in 1 Samuel 11) stole his and Jonathan’s bodies in the night from the wall where the Philistines had hung them, took them away and burned them honorably? I don’t know of a more moving story in the Bible.

  7. You’ve already said this, but perhaps I can clarify (or at least repeat). The key difference in the heroic fantasy Lars describes and Greek tragedies may be the tragedy part. They are both stories about heroes, but their focus or intent is entire different. The latter stories are meant to tell about defeat, brokenness, and ruin. The former is about victory, isn’t it? Conquest and triumph?

    The defeat probably makes the bridge for most of us in tragedy. We understand agony and loss more readily than nobility and righteous leadership. So Aragorn has to show feelings of unworthiness to be real to modern moviegoers, and Beowulf’s character as written makes no sense to anyone making movies, so they have to replace it entirely.

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