The list so far, with links:
1. Faux foreign diction. (Quakers in Spain)
2. Twee names ripped off from obvious sources. (Gwladys and the Ghraem’lan)
3. Chapters named after the cast of thousands of POV characters. (Tyrion 13:4)
4. Slovenly description, spin-doctoring, and rhetorical fog. (Teaching Pegasus to crawl)
5. Casual violations of narrative protocol (including POV). (Death carries a camcorder)
6. Characters who are sold as heroes, but act like spoilt adolescent sociopaths. (All hats are grey in the dark)
7. Characters motivated solely by the author’s need for a handy mouthpiece or strawman. (Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet)
8. Pornographic violence and gratuitous gross-outs. (A song of gore and slaughter)
9. ‘Worlds’ built of cardboard and papier-mâché. (Campbell’s Cream of Fantasy)
And now, to finish. I am less satisfied with this last essay than with any of the others, but after wrestling long and fruitlessly with it, I have decided to post it as it stands and take my lumps.
10. Bumper-sticker philosophizing passed off as ‘ancient wisdom’.
This ties in with #9 on the list, for it is a failure of world-building, though of a somewhat different kind. Fantasy and near-fantasy books are filled with Wise Old Men, chiefly because Wise Old Men are useful figures to conduct maid-and-butler dialogues with Witless Ingenue Heroes, but also, I suspect, because that old charlatan Jung listed the Wise Old Man prominently among his archetypes. The W.O.M. has become part of the furniture of Fantasyland, and the hacks at the Old Baloney Factory haven’t got the guts or the imagination to do without him. Unfortunately, while these Wise Old Men may be very old indeed, most of them seem singularly lacking in wisdom.
Now this, while regrettable, is hardly surprising. Wisdom is not a quality much sought after nowadays. The word sounds uncomfortably elitist and anti-subjective. It will not do to say that one person is wiser than another, unless one is prepared to say that one belief may be right and another wrong; and that is just the sort of thing we have grown too mealy-mouthed to say. It is the culmination of our collective amnesia. For two centuries, Western civilization has been growing steadily more infatuated with ephemeral knowledge at the expense of enduring truth. Ancient folktales and traditional songs have been replaced by pop-culture references; philosophy has declined into ideology; and wisdom, as an object of desire, has largely been supplanted by technical know-how. The very word wizard, which originally meant ‘wise person’, has come back into vogue as a label for people with the technological skill to do impressively difficult things as if by magic. Our ancestors, if educated, learnt Latin and quoted the Book of Proverbs; we learn XML and Java and quote Chicken Soup books.
They think that [God] works like the factories in Claptrap, inventing every day a new machine which supersedes the old. As machines are among the very few things that they do know something about, they cannot help thinking that everything is like them.
That is C.S. Lewis, of course, castigating the Anti-Romantics in The Pilgrim’s Regress. He could just as well have aimed this barb at the Postmodernists, if they had existed in his day, or the Deconstructionists, or Moral Relativists, or any of the philosophically vacuous people who think human nature as malleable as popular opinion. Whatever else has changed in the last thousand years, the human animal has not changed, and neither has the human brain. We cannot invent a new emotion, any more than a new primary colour. Birth and death are with us yet, as mysterious and awful as they were to our Neolithic ancestors, and as shrouded in rituals and taboos. Marriage persists strongly, despite the best efforts of the sexual revolutionaries, and even religion has stubbornly falsified every prediction that it would disappear. Last year’s computers ran Windows XP, and next year’s will run Windows Vista, but the operating system of the human soul has not changed in all our recorded history.
I am convinced that this largely accounts for our present hankering for fantasy. Fantasy worlds seldom seem to change much, and for the most part they do not change in technology at all. In Fantasyland men still fight each other with swords, or shoot arrows at one another, and they have never learnt to build machines more complicated than a simple water-powered grist-mill or sawmill. In other words, they live pretty much as humans lived from the invention of agriculture to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, though in more or less sanitized versions depending on the author. Fantasy is a zoo, as it were, where we can see humans in a clever imitation of their native habitat. Our own habitat changes so fast that it can hardly be called native to any of us. I was born in the 1960s, and often feel as if I were an exile from a country that no longer exists. For a people almost wholly ignorant of history, fantasy serves as a useful palliative for culture shock. It gives us an ersatz feeling of continuity.
But it is only ersatz, for the most part, because it has no real connexion to the common culture of preindustrial man. Nowhere is this easier to see than when an author tries to put words of wisdom in a character’s mouth. Ursula LeGuin said that archaism, like bicycling and computer programming, is something you have got to learn how to do before you can do it; and the same is true of wisdom. The collective experience and understanding of any preindustrial people can be found in its store of proverbs, adages, fables, folktales, ballads, poems, and nursery rhymes. There is more homely philosophy in a rhyme like ‘Simple Simon’ than in many a learned tract. As late as the 18th century, Benjamin Franklin seized upon aphorisms and gnomic verses as a way to inculcate strength of character among his American readers.
Some familiar examples of this kind of wisdom:
Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. —Proverbs 16:18
Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. —St .Paul, Galatians 6:7
It is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. —Confucius
A liar will not be believed, even when he speaks the truth. —Aesop
Early to bed and early to rise,
Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. —Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
If wishes were horses, beggars might ride. —English proverb, as collected by John Ray
There is a definite manner that all these have in common: pithy, sententious, unabashedly prescriptive. All are what is now called ‘simplistic’; but this popular wisdom is far from simplistic, for often a culture will have two familiar adages that appear to contradict one another, warning against opposite extremes. Sometimes a single saying expresses both horns of the dilemma:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit. —Proverbs 26:4-5
Now, there is an art to constructing adages, and it has largely been lost. A few modern writers, professionally familiar with the old documents, have managed to acquire the knack and use it to good effect:
Oft evil will shall evil mar.
Oft the unbidden guest proves the best company.
It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two; and those who have not swords can still die upon them.
See the bear in his own den before you judge of his conditions.
The first three of those are from Tolkien, the fourth from C.S. Lewis. It is no accident that the readiest examples come from the Inklings, Oxford dons steeped in classic and mediaeval traditions, with a Christian conservatism that assigned living value and significance to the old chestnuts they found there.
Stephen R. Donaldson, though learned primarily in modern literature, as a student of English and a child of missionaries has enough of the same background to work in a similar style when he chooses:
He who waits for the sword to fall upon his neck will surely lose his head.
But now, I am afraid, it is time for some counterexamples, for this is, after all, a list of things I hate. Let us begin with this:
Perfect speed is being there.
That is from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and well exemplifies the modern Western bumper-sticker koan, the paradox that seems profound but is really meaningless. Bach’s aphorism is certainly not true of physical velocity, which is what Jonathan is taught to apply it to; it leads not to instant apportation, the seagull’s goal, but to standing still. To be everywhere at once may indeed be ‘perfect speed’, but this discovery leaves us, who can be in only one place at a time, no better off. It is not ‘addressed to our condition’.
A proverb should be plain and vivid, and the metaphor, if any, obvious; and the application in daily life should be clear. This one is vague and abstract, and can only be interpreted by supplying a metaphor to which the saying itself supplies no key. It is true that Jonathan Livingston Seagull as a whole supplies a kind of key; but not a useful one. The book is ‘inspirational’ without being wise, but written in language cribbed from pop philosophy, to lend it a spurious air of wisdom. Those who know best the philosophical traditions thus traduced are least forgiving of the result.
One of the worst, or at least most infamous, offenders is our old friend Terry Goodkind. The same sterility of imagination and ineptitude of style that characterize his work as a whole appear in concentrated form when he tries to offer words of wisdom. Here are a few of his ‘Wizard’s Rules’:
People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true.
The Wizard's Fourth Rule, he called it. He said that there was magic in sincere forgiveness, in the Fourth Rule. Magic to heal. In forgiveness you grant, and more so in the forgiveness you receive.
Life is the future, not the past.
The last ‘rule’ listed above, by the way, was a slogan used in Britain during the Second World War to build civilian morale, and was conspicuously ineffective. The others run the gamut from New Age platitudes to expressions of boundless cynicism.
At one end of the scale, the ‘magic’ of forgiveness is a fine thing, but the Rule, for all its mock-poetic wind, says nothing about what that magic does. Compare Blake’s verse on a similar subject:
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
That tells you something about the effects of forgiveness, instead of merely expelling gas about how magical it all is. There is no place for vague rhapsodizing in ‘rules’ or proverbs, which need to be pithy and precise. Nothing so unspecific and unmemorable would pass the tests of use and time; but then, Goodkind’s world has such an exiguous past that perhaps the test of time has never been applied there.
At the opposite end, ‘People are stupid’ is a recipe for pride, an ill-founded feeling of superiority to one’s fellow man, and the ready temptation to Machiavellian manipulation. In cynicism, but not in elegance of expression, it matches Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur. James Branch Cabell, himself an arch-cynic, made that the motto of his fictitious pays of Poictesme, and for good reason: he was mocking everything within reach, and the whole Biography of the Life of Manuel constitutes a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the whole field of human behaviour and ambition. Goodkind, on the other hand, would have us believe that he is serious.
Actually, all these Rules are written in an awkward and clunky style severely at odds with the laconic poetry of the traditional proverb. Even so recent a coinage as Murphy’s Law has been trimmed to fit that standard. According to his son Robert, Major Murphy originally said something like this:
If there’s more than one way to do a job, and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.
But it was not in anything like that form that the phrase caught on. It had to be purified of its complexities and caveats, and cast in the strict mnemonic form of the popular adage, before it could take its place in the public mind. In the process, unfortunately, it lost much of its original meaning, and the wisdom of the original has turned to cynicism in the final form:
Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.
It says less than the original, but says it better, which matters more: it is easy to remember and falls trippingly from the tongue. The original Law has been worn smooth in passing from hand to hand.
Goodkind’s Rules have not been refined in this way, much to their detriment. By turns over-serious, self-important, cynical and empty, they have the heaviness of gold without the glitter. So does lead. We do not make crowns and sceptres out of lead, but out of gold; and the Golden Rule takes hold of the mind and heart as no leaden rule could ever do. If we are going to have imitations of ancient wisdom in our fiction, they had better be wise, and they had better be well expressed. Too many of Goodkind’s are neither.
There is a koan to the effect that a wheel is useless unless it has a hole in the centre to revolve around. But the function of the hole is not to remain empty, but to attach the wheel to the axle. The ‘wisdom’ of authors like Goodkind reminds me of a wheel without an axle: it will roll, but it cannot carry the cart. Considering that his books are positively hagridden by his Message of watered-down Randism, it seems odd to accuse them of thematic vacuity; but the accusation holds just the same. As soon as he actually expresses the so-called wisdom that makes up the burden of the Message, any wary and experienced reader can see that it is really no wisdom at all, but a combination of platitudes and errors.
But he is not the worst offender by far. Hundreds of his fellow authors have not even a vacuous message. These are the timid souls who merely tell us that their Wise Old Men are wise, without ever offering a sample of their wisdom. Their books are full of wizards in the merely technical sense, enormously powerful in magic, but equally weak in philosophy. Of course a wise man need not expound his philosophy in a nutshell to prove that he is wise; but in too many cases we cannot even infer from the context of his actions what his philosophy is. Belgarath, to return to one of my earlier whipping-boys, has no philosophy at all except ‘The Prophecy is always right.’ His companions are even more alarmingly vapid. And there are scores of characters like him in the genre, wise men who show no sign of wisdom.
Perhaps it is this, even more than the derivative nature of their plots and settings, that makes so many fantasy authors’ books so unrewarding. Their heroes exert themselves mightily to save the world, but they have never even looked for answers to the questions that make a world worth saving.