Thursday, October 14, 2010

Revisiting Poughkeepsie, Part 2: The Language of the Night


I dug out my tattered old paperback of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Language of the Night and re-read "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" to see how it was holding up, thirty-seven years after it was first published.

Why would I even wonder?  Well, for one thing the central conceit, preserved in the title, that Poughkeepsie stands in for everything that fantasy is not has been, ironically enough, disproved.  In 1988, Rachel Pollack published the absolutely wonderous Unquenchable Fire, a fantasy novel set in the aftermath of an irruption of the shamanistic universe into our world.  In it, when the man comes to read the electric meter, he also builds a shrine and sacrifices a mouse to keep the power flowing.  The cheerleaders in a homecoming parade march topless and smeared with blood -- terrifying maenads normalized into everyday American life.  It's an exhilarating work and no question about it core fantasy.

The novel is set in Poughkeepsie.  As is Pollack's later Temporary Agency, which I also strongly commend to your attention.

All this proves, of course, is that fantasy has grown and changed since the essay first appeared in 1973.  But I approached the essay prepared for anything.

The first thing I noticed was how much fantasy has changed in the last third of a century and how little fantasy was available then.  Le Guin acknowledged the tremendous debt that fantasy readers owed to Lin Carter for his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, without which (at that time) you could not have claimed to have a serious fantasy genre at all.  And she consistently referred to her subject as "heroic fantasy," which was at the time the single best term available.

If you ever doubt the power that a name has to shape our thinking, consider only the following sentence, central to Le Guin's discussion of the language of fantasy:

Nobody who says "I told you so" has ever been, or ever will be a hero.
Ged, in the Earthsea books, started out as a hero-to-be.  But over the sequence of books, he grew out of it.  As Le Guin's art matured, she more and more came to distrust the very idea of heroes.  Yet, early on, she was thinking in those terms simply because the language told her to.

This is not a criticism, however.  Le Guin's essay does open a window into an earlier literary era, when fantasy readers had to scrabble through cardboard boxes stuck behind the "Occult" and "Children's" sections of used book stores, to feed their hunger.  But it invalidates none of what she was talking about.

What she was talking about was language and the ways in which it can be properly used to create a fantasy world that lives and breathes upon the page.  On which subject her language soared!  To a young aspiring fantasist, it was a clarion call to battle.

(And in that metaphor, we see again how a simple name, "heroic fantasy," can shape our responses.)

Accompanying her discussion of the ways language can be used in a fantasy are examples of ways it should not:  Archaicisms, false feeling, fake grammar, journalistic prose . . .  To many, many gonnabe writers, these few brief pages were worth any number of writing workshops.

To answer the question I first asked yesterday:  Yes, the essay holds up extremely well.  It would still be a very good starting place for someone trying to learn how to write fantasy.  In some ways fantasy has moved beyond it . . .  But to a very large degree it was Le Guin herself who changed the genre.

Which is why Aqueduct Press published 80! Memories and Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin (edited by Karen Joy Fowler and Debbie Notkin and priced at a very reasonable nineteen dollars in paperback) in the first place.

And speaking of mischievous Finns . . .

Years ago, at Finncon, a fan came up with a wicked idea for a practical joke: "We should get a fan with a very strong Finnish accent to call up our next prospective guest of honor and say, 'I am calling from Helsinki to inform you that you are to receive a very great honor."

"That's a funny idea," I said.  "But what science fiction writer could conceivably think he or she has a shot at the Nobel Prize?"

The fan smirked.  "Stanislaw Lem."

Sometime after that, I told this story to Gordon Van Gelder.  He smiled gently and said, "Or Ursula K. Le Guin.  But who would be so mean?"



rahkan said...

Well, I mean, it all looks so much more likely now that Doris Lessing's gotten it =)

Michael Swanwick said...

Did you see Lessing receive the news? "Oh, Christ!" she said. Or maybe it was something ruder.

I want to be just like her when I grow up.

David Stone said...

Bahw, everyone knows only fantasy writers win the Nobel.

Richard Mason said...

Literary-historical question: Are there any examples before Tolkien where the protagonist is an elf, dwarf, gnome, or similar: i.e., neither a human being nor a Beatrix Potter animal?

Michael Swanwick said...

Indeed there is! The heroes of THE WORM OUROBOROS by E.R. Eddison are all demons of Demonland. Okay, the demons, witches (of Witchland), and so forth (of Soforthland) are indistinguishable from human beings. But that's an error of execution, rather than intent.

If there's anybody who has any other exemplars of preTolkienian non-human heroes, post 'em here. There may be a blog in the making.

David Stone said...

Arguably the hero of Journey to the West is the supernaturally gifted monkey Sun Wukong. However, he's an anthropomorphic (definitely not like something from Beatrice Potter though) so I guess that disqualifies him.

Richard Mason said...

Loki is the protagonist in some stories, and he was a giant (and apparently also sometimes referred to as an elf). So perhaps he counts.

And if Titans count as a non-human race, there's Prometheus.

But I would be better pleased with examples who weren't (often classed as) gods.