May 25th, 2006

Quakers in Spain

Courtesy sartorias (from emmaco, who got it from Kathleen, who got it from Glenda Larke), ten things I hate in a book. To make this more challenging, I shall try to avoid any of the 40 things in the lists cited, and to make it at least slightly interesting, I’m going to name names. I am Superversive, disequilibrator of fewmets; hear me roar!

1. Faux foreign diction.
I blame Hemingway for this one. In his twenties, Papa H. perfected an entirely new narrative prose style, an etiolated strain of which has become the default ‘transparent’ style of the modern American novelist. Of all the bizarre ‘experimental’ styles of the 1920s, from Joyce’s glossolalia to Stein’s commaphobia, Hemingway’s was the only experiment that really succeeded. Doesn’t matter; he paid the rent for them all. Unfortunately, he soon degenerated into self-parody. A man’s wit may outlive his wits, in which case he will retain the ability to write arch imitations of his best work long after time and tide and whiskey have washed away the rest of his talents.

Alas, Hemingway’s judgement went the way of his skill, for the style he chose to imitate in his parodic senescence was not the style of the successful experiment. It was the laboured and mannered style of For Whom the Bell Tolls, the purpose of which is to make you think that the book has been translated from Spanish with painful literalness. So he peppered his prose with irrelevant Spanish palabras that you’re expected to know the meaning of, not because they have no English equivalents, but because, you know, people speaking Spanish occasionally throw in a really really Spanish word just to remind you that they’re not speaking English or Cantonese. He also makes much use of Spanish idioms translated word for word, no import how unnaturally the prose puts itself in consequence. He makes sure, once in a while, after giving you a phrase in English, to repeat himself in Spanish, y relanzarse en castellano. And he uses thou and thee with wild inconsistency, often forgetting and settling for you, and just as often using thee as the nominative case. Quakers in Spain, forsooth! There are words in Spanish for people who do this kind of thing, and we do not have such words in English, but I will not instruct you in obscenity by repeating them here. Sinverguenza is one of the milder ones.

The effect of all this is to persuade you that the book you are reading was written by a peculiarly self-important idiot savant who is intimately acquainted with foreign idioms, but does not know how to form English contractions. In a short book, like The Old Man and the Sea, it is just tolerable, but at greater length, or done inexpertly by other hands, it descends rapidly into schtick. Cormac McCarthy is said to be one of the worst culprits; I’ll take B.R. Myers’ word for it (not without sufficiently extensive quotations to make me viscerally ill). James A. Michener was another frequent offender, though in his case the contrast is less striking because his usual English is apt to be clunky enough.

There is a place for this technique, but not much of one. It is appropriate to dialogue, not récit, and at that, to the speech of characters who are either represented as speaking a foreign language (to the narrator, that is), or as foreigners trying to speak the narrator’s language with imperfect success. A little goes a long way. It is particularly unsuitable for long passages when the subtextual ‘foreign’ language is itself fictitious. Tolkien skirted the bounds with his gobbets of undigested Elvish, but at least his Elves, when speaking English, spoke English (a peculiarly archaic and cadenced English, which suited them, and sorted well with the things they had to say) and not a tortured attempt at Elf-glish.

(To be continued. . . .)

Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan

Ten things I hate in a book, continued:

2. Twee names ripped off from obvious sources.
I refer particularly to the practice, which perhaps originated in cheesy Gothic romances but is most firmly established in bad fantasy, of taking familiar or (God help us) transiently fashionable names, changing a couple of letters, sticking in an apostrophe or two, and passing them off as something wild and exotic. It never works. You cannot pass off pinchbeck as fairy-gold, especially to the fairies.

Women writers seem especially prone to this fault — Anne McCaffrey and Katharine Kurtz, with their hordes of imitators, come quickest to mind — which is not surprising, since this is also one of the stock methods of coming up with ‘different’ first names for girl children. P.G. Wodehouse hit it exactly in ‘The Spot of Art’:

‘You sit there and tell me you haven’t enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys? Listen, Bertie,’ said Aunt Dahlia earnestly, ‘I’m an older woman than you are — well, you know what I mean — and I can tell you a thing or two. And one of them is that no good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys.’

Of course, there are male offenders as well, and they make up in volume of prose whatever they lack in numbers. Robert Jordan’s names are cringingly awful. Take Rand al’Thor: evidently the name of a Dutchman who was named after a Norse god by Arabs, if internal evidence is anything to go by. Trollocs is a bad enough word, reminding one irresistibly of trollops as well as troll-orcs, but nothing compared to the ghastly names of their tribes: Ahf’frait, Al’ghol, Bhan’sheen, Dha’vol, Dhai’mon, Dhjin’nen, Ghar’ghael, Ghob’hlin, Gho’hlem, Ghraem’lan, Ko’bal, Kno’mon. A man who can perpetrate a travesty like that, and deliberately put it into print, should not have the freedom of the streets. He embarrasses the human race by ass’hoh’shieh’shun.

But let us give this dha’vol his dh’ue. Jordan may be the worst offender in bulk, but it is Terry Brooks who holds the record for the worst single name ever used in a fantasy novel: the unforgettable Allanon. (I keep wondering when his sidekick Allateen will show up.) Gary Gygax’s city of Stoink is a dismally close second.

George R.R. Martin, though a much better writer than Brooks or Jordan, comes perilously close to the Gwladys standard here and there in A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of his names (Tyrion, Daenerys, Arya) are quite effective, if over-freighted with the letter Y. But they sort very ill with the not-quite-English names like Eddard and Samwell, and those in turn clash just perceptibly with straight English names like Robert and Jon. One gets the feeling that Martin knows what he is trying to do, but hasn’t a sufficiently developed ear to tell when he has done it. His names go in and out of tune.

In all of sf and fantasy, there have been three authors who perfectly mastered the delicate art of nomenclature: Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, and Mervyn Peake. Tolkien, of course, worked for decades at his invented languages, and the names he coined in those languages are both euphonious and authentic. But he was also deeply versed in English names, both of people and places, a study that would well reward many writers who do not trouble themselves to undertake it. As for Smith and Peake, between them they cornered the market in Gothic bizarreries, which happened to perfectly suit the kinds of stories they wanted to tell. It is perfectly correct that Lord Jestocost of the Instrumentality should keep a cat-descended mistress called C’Mell, and that the nemesis of Sepulchrave Groan, Earl of Gormenghast, should be called Steerpike. These names are English, or something near it, but so cleanly transported out of the normal conventions of English naming that they take on the distant glamour of names like Aragorn and Lúthien. And unlike Tolkien’s names, it is possible to work out something of their meanings, or at least associations, without an unobtainable dictionary of an imaginary language at one’s elbow. This is a great timesaver. Each method has much to recommend it, but for a writer in a hurry, with middling linguistic gifts, I would recommend leaning towards the Smith-Peake school. Few fantasy writers are inclined to take this advice.

Tyrion 13:4

Ten things I hate in a book, continued:

3. Chapters named after the cast of thousands of POV characters.

This device, if one can call it that, has been popularized by George R.R. Martin in his monster epic A Song of Ice and Fire. He may have derived it from Stephen R. Donaldson, his friend and fellow New Mexican, who used it in the last three volumes of his (unusually literal) space opera The Gap. Donaldson can’t remember offhand where he got the idea, but it may have been from Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn. (I have not so far succeeded in tracing the pedigree any further.) Instead of giving their chapters proper titles, these worthy gentlemen simply slap a character’s name at the top of a fresh page, followed by his or her inmost thoughts and experiences in gruelling detail.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this in itself. There are many ways of naming chapters, including the time-honoured one of simply using numbers. I happen to like chapters with titles, and all the more if they are interesting or witty. My favourite sort of chapter titles, and the kind I strive after myself, are those with double or triple meanings. Perhaps my favourite movie title of all time is A Shot in the Dark, which accurately describes both the murder with which the story opens and Inspector Clouseau’s method of identifying the killer. That is a fair sample of the flavour I prefer. But if it will ease a cherished author’s passage through this vale of tears to call his chapters ‘Eddard’ or ‘Angus’ or ‘Daneel’ or ‘Jim-Bob’, he can do it with my blessing.

The trouble, at least with Donaldson and Martin’s use of the trick, is that they eschew all other methods of identifying chapters. To begin with, they do not number their chapters. This is a serious offence against the reader. If I am reading an 800-page book, a task I do not routinely accomplish at a single sitting, I want a foolproof method of remembering my place in case the bookmark falls out between times. Page numbers are too transient and too difficult to remember, especially for someone who is generally in the middle of four or five books at once. Chapter numbers are just right. Chapter titles, without numbers, are unhelpfully hard to find when the book (like most novels) has no table of contents.

When there are 23 chapters with the same name, and not even the dignity of a Roman numeral to tell them apart, madness beckons from its twitchy horse and takes me for a gallop. I could with but slight difficulty find my way back to Jon IV, or Jon X, or Jon CLXXVI, Dei gratia capitulum, but Messrs. D & M do not even accord me that exiguous courtesy. The only thing for it is to pick a likely-looking chapter at about the right place in the book, read a bit of it, and then cast backwards or forwards a chapter at a time until I find where I last left off. And that is not foolproof, for I often find the characters agonizing over the death of somebody who was alive and well when last I saw him, and wonder if I have missed a crucial stretch after all.

This brings me to the other defect of this method, which is not intrinsic to the method itself, but seems inextricably associated with it. Authors, it seems, do not commonly name their chapters after their respective viewpoint characters unless those characters come by regiments and battalions. I once counted all the POV characters in A Song of Ice and Fire; I believe I lost count somewhere around three thousand, but my memory may be at fault. Probably it was more. The result of this is that a character’s story arc will be interrupted in mid-scene with a glorious cliffhanger, well worthy of the old Doctor Who at its cheesy best, and then nothing more will be heard of the matter for two or three hundred pages.

Lately, Martin has taken to driving his characters in two sets abreast, so that some of the cliffhangers in the third volume are not taken up again until the fifth. There comes a point at which mere suspension of disbelief is no longer enough. What is wanted is a sustained effort at the suspension of memory, and it takes a steel cable of Verrazano-Narrows gauge to carry the load. It was this, more than any other fault of Martin’s, that caused me to give up on ASOIAF after the first three volumes.

Yet one seems to get very little meat out of this method, no matter how much the plotline of these books resembles something filmed in an abattoir. For once we have caught up with Pauline still in her peril of a thousand pages or two hours ago, and see her suitably extricated, we are then obliged to sit down and listen while she discusses or soliloquizes at great length about what all the other characters are doing, and where they are now, and whether they can be counted on to have done what they set out to do, and whether they are dead or only shamming.

There is a certain amount of this in most good books. The Lord of the Rings derives great poignancy from the constant uncertainty of Frodo’s position, as Aragorn and Gandalf and the rest strive superhumanly to perform heroic deeds that will be entirely wasted if Sauron recovers the Ring. But there are only eight (surviving) members of the Quest, not eighty, and they do not all sit around between battles and wonder what all the other seventy-nine are up to. In both The Gap and ASOIAF, the enormously complicated plots are largely driven by groups and nodes of characters trying to second-guess each other, and generally getting it wrong.

There must be a better way to construct a five-volume novel, and there certainly are better ways to maintain narrative tension. But both Donaldson and Martin appear to have become inebriated with the exuberance of their own ingenuity, as well as their verbosity. Their books would be shorter, neater, and more effective if they could resist the temptation to chase up side-issues and minor characters in the same detail as the deeds of their principal heroes. They set out to be architects, but spend most of their time and skill carving gargoyles for their drains.

Teaching Pegasus to crawl

Ten things I hate in a book, continued:

4. Slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog.
Most of what I could say about this has been said with magnificent wit and force by Ursula K. LeGuin in her seminal essay ‘From Elfland to Poughkeepsie’. The language of fantasy should be appropriate to fantasy; the speech of heroes should be heroic; the sound of the lame excuse should not be heard in that land. This is the law and the prophets: all else is gloss. But I should like to dwell upon the gloss awhile, as the fantasy field has changed enormously in the 32 years since ‘Poughkeepsie’ was published, and by no means all for the better.

Some time or other, I am going to write a retrospective essay on the Fantasy Big Bang of 1977, when the field as we know it today emerged full-grown, swinging a sword and swashing a buckler, from the dog-eared notebooks of the late J.R.R. Tolkien. This is an exaggeration, but not a gross one. Besides The Silmarillion, that year marked the appearance of three first novels and a film that permanently changed the commercial and critical climate in fantasy publishing. It also marked the official annexation of Elfland by Poughkeepsie, though the elves have been fighting a valiant rearguard action in the remoter parts of the country. In short, 1977 was when Fantasyland opened for business at its present location. And one of the signal qualities of Fantasyland is the utterly pedestrian tone of its prose. Some fantasy authors are simply inept with language, which would have disqualified them in the old days; others, alas, have quite deliberately stripped all the magic and grandeur out of their writing, coldly and deliberately, to make the newcomers from suburbia feel perfectly at home.

In Northrop Frye’s taxonomic system, as propounded in An Anatomy of Criticism, the plots and characters of fantasy normally occupy the levels of Romance and High Mimesis, with occasional excursions into Myth. But from 1977 on, it became usual to write their stories, and still worse their dialogue, in the ordinary novelistic language of Low Mimesis and Irony. The strain is too much for the structure to bear. Where Aragorn and Gandalf, or Eddison’s four Lords of Demonland, spoke like heroes and behaved accordingly, too many of their successors come across as over-aged adolescents playing at knights and dragons. It is no calumny to say that the tone of the average commercial fantasy novel nowadays is not much above the tone of the average Dungeons & Dragons campaign. And this, of course, is no accident, for D&D players are the most identifiable and exploitable demographic for fantasy publishers.

I have played a lot of D&D in my time, as it happens, and what I observe time and again is players who Just Don’t Get It. They are ostensibly playing heroes, or at least quasi-heroic adventurers, but they give these characters a kind of life that betrays their utter unfamiliarity with either heroism or adventure. Not long ago, I dabbled in Third Edition D&D after an absence of many years. One party in which I participated was, or rather played, a group of irregulars in the service of a baron whose domain was beset by ogres, pirates, and assorted menaces from the omnium gatherum of the Monster Manual. The Dungeon Master was an ex-serviceman, familiar with the bureaucratic organization of modern armies, and utterly ignorant of the deeply personal and emotional loyalties that characterized the feudal system. Though we were, sword for sword, the most valuable retainers the baron had, we were never actually permitted to meet him, and seldom even saw the captain of his men-at-arms. We were dealt with summarily by a mere lieutenant, briefed, debriefed, conferred with in map-rooms, and generally treated with less courtesy and ceremony than a mediaeval king would have shown to the merest beggar. Kings touched commoners for the king’s evil, but our lord the baron did not touch commoners at all. Corporate Poughkeepsie, with its disgusting rudeness and indifference, and the layers of insulation built up to protect every person of importance or even self-importance from the importunities of the public, was in full possession of an ostensible fortress of Elfland.

All this showed in our DM’s use of language, which I shall mercifully spare you; and the like attitude, with much less excuse, shows daily in the pages of modern commercial fantasy. At about this point in her argument, Ms. LeGuin gave some more or less random examples of dialogue in great works of fantasy, and one less great. I should like to offer some beginnings, since that is where the modern, groomed, workshopped author is taught to display his very finest wares:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return. The riches he had brought back from his travels had now become a local legend, and it was popularly believed, whatever the old folk might say, that the Hill at Bag End was full of tunnels stuffed with treasure. And if that was not enough for fame, there was also his prolonged vigour to marvel at. Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect on Mr. Baggins. At ninety he was much the same as at fifty. At ninety-nine they began to call him well-preserved; but unchanged would have been nearer the mark. There were some that shook their heads and thought this was too much of a good thing; it seemed unfair that anyone should possess (apparently) perpetual youth as well as (reputedly) inexhaustible wealth.

‘It will have to be paid for,’ they said. ‘It isn’t natural, and trouble will come of it!’

This is Tolkien’s version of Poughkeepsie, but already in the distance we can hear the horns of Elfland tuning for their first fanfare. The events described are entirely pedestrian, a birthday party and some small-town gossip, but they are fraught with significance. In a way, the entire plot of The Lord of the Rings is merely the rigorous and complete exploration of the ‘trouble’ that came from Bilbo’s ‘unfair’ lease of youth and riches.

Note that Tolkien, whose literary influences were nearly all dead before 1900, is not at all afraid to begin with sixty years of backstory, pithily summarized, or to burden the reader with récit instead of a cinematic ‘teaser’. This is how such things were normally done in the days when literature was not deformed by the perceived need (and impossible desire) to compete with television on television’s home ground. I believe that we shall yet see a return of the novelistic novel, as opposed to the novel that tries to be a faithful replica of an unmade movie. But that is not, generally speaking, what we are getting at present:

The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland. Flick followed the familiar trail with his eyes as he trudged wearily along, his light pack slung loosely over one shoulder. His broad, windburned face bore a set, placid look, and only the wide gray eyes revealed the restless energy that burned beneath the calm exterior.

That is the opening paragraph of The Sword of Shannara, one of those Big Bang fantasies I mentioned above. Or rather, it is part of the opening paragraph, for we are treated to several more lines of visual description of the mysterious Mr. Ohmsford. Although Brooks’s first novel has been mercilessly derided as a mere pastiche of The Lord of the Rings, it is in fact something very much more (and less): a translation of LOTR from epic English into modern pedestrian novelese. It is the Fantasyland version of Tolkien.

See how the story opens with an attempt at cinematic description. Everything is seen through the camera eye, beginning with a long establishing shot of the countryside, then closing in on the weary figure trudging through the landscape, ending with an extreme closeup focused tightly on the eyes. It is true that everything is seen as through a gel filter, darkly, for Brooks’s descriptive powers are not great, and if we form a vivid image of a countryside from these vague cues, it redounds to our credit and not his. ‘Touching the corners of the land’ is strictly meaningless, as nasty a bit of mock-poetic trumpery as you could hope to find among the sham beams of a Tudor pub in Peoria. The bit about the restless energy revealed by Flick’s wide gray eyes is simply a cheat, and a cheat of a particular kind that I should like to discuss in more detail.

You see, this is the very essence of the Fantasyland style: to swaddle the reader in visual description, engaging her mind (I assume a female reader for convenience’ sake, as the writer I am attacking is male) in the mild trance state most conducive to escapist reading, while communicating the real gist of the matter in windy abstractions. Nobody could possibly see restless energy burning in a man’s eyes as he trudges wearily down a hillside trail, even if there were somebody there to look for it. (There is not; Flick is alone at this point, except for the omnipresent camera eye.) What we have is a purely subjective and fanciful opinion about Flick’s character, passed off as physical description and therefore as fact. If a character formed such an impression of Flick’s eyes, the reader would know where she stands. She would know it was an opinion, no more reliable or well-informed than the person who made it, and from this she could learn not only about Flick but about his observer, and the relationship between them. As it stands, she learns only that Terry Brooks wants her to think of Flick as a dynamo of hidden energies, without showing him doing anything remotely energetic, let alone dynamic.

LeGuin observed that a fantasy writer’s true quality shows best in his dialogue. It takes three full pages of Flick’s solo trudgery before we come to the first line of dialogue in the story:

The dark figure was almost on top of the Valeman before Flick sensed its presence looming up before him like a great, black stone which threatened to crush his smaller being. With a startled cry of fear he leaped aside, his pack falling to the path with a crash of metal, and his left hand whipped out the long, thin dagger at his waist. Even as he crouched to defend himself, he was stayed by a commanding arm raised above the figure before him and a strong, yet reassuring voice that spoke out quickly.

‘Wait a moment, friend. I’m no enemy and have no wish to harm you. I merely seek directions and would be grateful if you could show me the proper path.’

When two strangers cross paths in a wood, and one wishes to ask the other for directions, he does not customarily introduce himself by sneaking up within arm’s length and doing his best impression of a Black Rider. No indeed: accosting the other man from a distance and asking the way to Poughkeepsie is the generally accepted thing. It’s a fake scare, followed by fake reassurance. Again we have the cloudy attempts at description (‘great, black stone’), merely to give the author a plausible defence against the charge of ‘telling, not showing’. And again the meat of the matter, such as it is, is told and not shown, an opinion enforced by pure auctorial fiat. ‘A strong, yet reassuring voice’ could sound like anything. We are told that Flick was reassured by it, but we really have no idea why.

By the bye, at this point, four pages into The Sword of Shannara, we have got considerably less distance with the story than Tolkien took us with the three short paragraphs that begin The Lord of the Rings. The Fantasyland writer is nothing if not verbose.

Another of the Big Bang fantasies was Circle of Light, by Niel Hancock. It is difficult today to believe that Hancock’s overgrown fairytale was highly acclaimed in its day and sold over a million copies. It is very much a book of the Seventies, and you can hear deliberate echoes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull in the opening:

On the morning of his leaving, he erased all his tracks from that part of heaven, carefully stacked new star branches in a neat pile behind the entrance in the dark mouth of the universe, and sadly began the thousand-year trip down the side of the sky that closely resembled a large mountain. If you looked at it that way. If you didn’t, it might seem very much like walking out your own front door and down the steps.

It is an accomplishment, I suppose, to be both twee and portentous at the same time, but that combination is Hancock’s speciality. Our unnamed character is a Bear, the Bear in fact, a stock anthropomorphic fairytale Bear of the sort that has been familiar to everyone since Robert Southey seeded Elfland with three of the species; but he is also the reincarnation of an ancient hero. So we are told in the subsequent pages, though we never learn just what he did that was so heroic that it would still be remembered in the twilight of the ages. Again we see this curious tendency to show trivialities and baldly tell essentials. In this case, it is overlaid with a New Age mystical conceit, for the Bear’s journey is, of course, his reincarnation to fight the good fight once more. The tone is more juvenile than that of Shannara, but the cinematic pretensions and windy vagueness are much the same.

Now, I do not mean to give the impression that a cinematic, novelistic technique (derived, by the way, from Hemingway’s successful experiment referred to earlier) is always inappropriate for fantasy. Special circumstances can justify it, as in the third of the Big Bang novels:

She came out of the store just in time to see her young son playing on the sidewalk directly in the path of the gray, gaunt man who strode down the center of the walk like a mechanical derelict. For an instant, her heart quailed. Then she jumped forward, gripped her son by the arm, snatched him out of harm’s way.

The man went by without turning his head. As his back moved away from her, she hissed at it, “Go away! Get out of here! You ought to be ashamed!”

Thomas Covenant’s stride went on, as unfaltering as clockwork that had been wound to the hilt for just this purpose. But to himself he responded, Ashamed? Ashamed? His face contorted in a wild grimace. Beware! Outcast unclean!

Stephen R. Donaldson, by his own admission, is a notorious over-writer, but there are no wasted words here. Nothing is spent on the setting, beyond the mention of the store and sidewalk; we recognize this as a street zoned commercial, part of our own world. We have immediate action, immediate conflict, and are faced at once with an urgent question. Why is Thomas Covenant subjected to such execration merely for walking down the street? What ought he to be ashamed of? Just as Bilbo’s neighbours adumbrated the whole plot of LOTR in a sneering line of dialogue, the woman from the store (whom we never see again) sets up the essential conflict that drives The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. It is a powerful and engaging opening, though Covenant later squanders the capital of sympathy that his author laid in for him. The action is described cinematically, if you like, but it is action and not impressionistic claptrap about the countryside. And like Tolkien, and unlike Brooks and Hancock, Donaldson puts his subjective judgements where they properly belong, in the minds and mouths of characters who are capable of making those judgements inside the story. The narrator does not intrude at all.

But this exception, after all, works because Thomas Covenant really is a man from Poughkeepsie, or somewhere distressingly like it. The apparatus of the twentieth-century novel is appropriate to his tale, because he is a twentieth-century man, and his tale is about the head-on collision between Elfland and Poughkeepsie. Donaldson has described the Covenant books as a kind of inverse of Idylls of the King Tennyson’s masterpiece is the tale of how King Arthur was destroyed by a world full of petty and self-seeking men; Donaldson’s debut is about a petty and self-seeking man who finds redemption in a world full of King Arthurs. The tone is often ironic, in Frye’s usage of the term, because Covenant is an ironic hero. He speaks fluent Poughkeepsie, and the characters of the Land to which he is transported speak a highly idiosyncratic dialect pregnant with the unmistakable tones of Elfland.

One more example, and I shall leave the matter alone. This is not from the Big Bang, but from the monstrously long and still unfinished Fantasyland novel that fully assimilated and imitated all its predecessors. All the yardwork and busywork, all the Extruded Book Product from the Old Baloney Factory, is summed up in this one encyclopaedic tale, and the beginning strikes the note with uncanny accuracy:

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

Born below the ever cloud-capped peaks that gave the mountains their name, the wind blew east, out across the Sand Hills, once the shore of a great ocean, before the Breaking of the World. Down it flailed into the Two Rivers, into the tangled forest called the Westwood, and beat at two men walking with a cart and horse down the rock-strewn track called the Quarry Road. For all that spring should have come a good month since, the wind carried an icy chill as if it would rather bear snow.

Gusts plastered Rand al’Thor’s cloak to his back, whipped the earth-colored wool around his legs, then streamed it out behind him. He wished his coat were heavier, or that he had worn an extra shirt. Half the time when he tried to tug the cloak back around him it caught on the quiver swinging at his hip. Trying to hold the cloak one-handed did not do much good anyway; he had his bow in the other, an arrow nocked and ready to draw.

This is Fantasyland in a nutshell. We have the cod philosophizing of Hancock, perhaps improved upon, certainly intensified, by the Liberal Application of Capital Letters. We have the blatant cribs from Tolkien, the Third Age and the Misty Mountains. We have a panoramic camera shot of some very unsatisfactory and out-of-focus scenery, the burden of which is simply the screenwriter’s ‘Exterior Fantasyland, day.’ We do not yet, it is true, have any auctorial opinions about Rand al’Thor fobbed off on us as physical description, but we may confidently guess that we will not be deprived of that amenity for long.

Robert Jordan has rounded up all the usual suspects, and they all do exactly the Poughkeepsian duty that every right-thinking reader has learnt to expect. And he has done it without getting us any distance at all with the story. It takes him a full page to tell us that Rand’s cloak is flapping in the wind. That may not be good writing, but at least it is an authentic sample of the long, slow slog to come. If nothing else, we can praise Jordan for truth in advertising. He has not only clipped Pegasus’ wings, but broken his legs as well, and will spend the next ten thousand pages teaching him to crawl. It would be so unacceptably Elflandish to let him soar.