Something I Think I See

When at last we come to the Pelennor Fields and the battle taking place there, there is a change in how the tale is told. We accept Tolkien’s diction, that high and lofty diction, that fell telling of a great, heroic war in almost chanted rhythm and in language we do not use every day. How can he do it? He brought us there persuasively. He opened the way with Hobbits.

That’s the curious thing about The Worm Ouroboros. We do not know what the story would be without the clumsy introduction, but perhaps that introduction still achieves what it must: the transition into the glorious Jacobean English that is as much a part of the tale as anything, and without which we would not accept anything that follows. In other books Eddison goes back and forth from a world without great heroic possibilities to one saturated in it, and the indication is his change of diction. Why did he feel he had to do that? I think it is that he had somehow to lead us there.

And if the tale’s to be heroic it must have characters greater than life, and so a heroic diction which is greater than our daily speech has to indicate that, because it is not the what so much as the how that shows us what is meant. The thing is to persuade, to lead or even curiously to put people in it in a way they not only will accept, but want. In our day what usually happens is the modern ork mocks anything heroic by smearing it with his own crudity. There are a range of virtues necessary for the heroic to be consistent. A heroic age is one in which men become sensible of intangible things, and these things make them noble. Ours is an age in which men are not. So you get men mocking something of former times because they are blind. And what happens is that the degraded sensibility is transposed onto the old situation. In that light the old becomes a new and absurd situation; the old wonder is laughed at and dismissed, and no heroic vision is preserved. Much of this is done by clever language–Orks, remember, are clever folk.

But orks do not produce art. For art to succeed there has to be coherence, because in that lies its truth–it must suggest truly, must give a faithful vision. Which is why Mervyn Peake succeeds: there is a coherence of expression and theme; that peculiar vision of a region of the strange known as The Gormenghastly, that pronunciation that ‘ripeness is all’ when ripeness has passed into fermentation and when the possibilities of that condition bubble abundantly forth is what he exactly nails, affording us another quiddity. Can that be told in stark language? No.

Consider, on this matter of diction, Susanna Clarke: she leads, but more subtly, by plunging one into something whimsical which deepens into what she wants to show. She takes on the overscrupulous, rational and uncontracted diction of the age of reason for something supremely whimsical, and she does it with the complete seriousness of that which I assume led to the tedious realism we have by now exhausted; she stirs up the greater longing for enchantment, underlying purpose and humanized proportions in a world dramatic with the light of magic dawning and the suggestion of deepening magic. And while her diction never changes, the meaning of it deepens under it by the careful placing of what seemed a meandering plot significantly. Why she does it you don’t have to think about to be satisfied with the book; but if you think about it you will understand at the end–because she understood it as she wrote.

What I think I see is perhaps obvious to and has been obvious to you, but it is an insight for me into what I’m trying to do with this story of The Falcon Lord, and has put me onto revising it for the nth time in a radicaller way than formerly.

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