Friday, November 28, 2008

You Didn't Have To Do It But You You Did (Yes You Did), And I Thank You

The Honeythief proper is taking a break this week—more travel, more chaos, more fellowship and good news than any man (especially me) deserves—but I did want to step back and talk about the book for a minute. You would think that by now, three-quarters of the way through this first draft, there wouldn't be many surprises left for me in the story. But in looking back over the narrative so far, I realized something that I had not suspected; that the world of The Honeythief is largely pre-literate, and my main characters can neither read nor write.

It's slightly embarrassing to admit that I just noticed this. It's even more embarrassing to admit how I came to do so.

See, I was rewatching the Lord of the Rings movies the other day, as is my wont during Thanksgiving week (not a tradition, exactly, just a wont). Now, as much as I love these pictures, there are plenty of goofy bits about them, things that make me snort. The thing that I found particularly amusing the other day was the anachronistic ubiquity of bound books and paper. After snickering at the library-of-Gondor scene in Fellowship—if Gandalf keeps on bringing coffee back into the stacks, he's gonna lose his borrowing privileges—I cast my mind back over The Honeythief for any moments where the written word played a key role, and I couldn't come up with a single one.

Katy and Quiñones consult a map, yeah, but that's a different skillset. There are no signs, no notes, no messages, no books, no broadsheets. When our heroes go on the lam, there are no WANTED posters; when Pismire sends the Regina a proclamation, there's no sealed envelope, no diplomatic pouch. This world, in all its various cultures, was not a reading world.

It was a mild revelation. I mean, from the start I was consciously trying to evoke a sort of bardic tradition; it shows not only in my choice of Fiddlin' Katy as my viewpoint character, but also in the style of storytelling—the language, the figures, the cadences. But I had not realized until just then that the written word was basically absent from the story.

Contrast that with Tolkien. His characters carry an awareness of themselves as steeped in history—and not only that, in a recorded history. They're all literate—usually in multiple languages. Even the rude and uncultured Orcs have writing, even if they use it only to daub graffiti over the monuments of a more heroic age. It's a reflection of the Ole Perfesser's own background as a scholar, of course; he, too, was self-consciously working in a mythic tradition, but it's a literary myth. When Aragorn sings the lay of Beren and Lúthien, you get the sense that he learned it not at the feet of a bard, but from a dusty book—much as Tolkien himself learned Beowulf or The Pearl.

My folks, for the most part, exist quite happily without writing—indeed, without any sense of history. Remember, they are not precisely human, and their consciousness is not like our own. The Sharing peoples, like the Mélif, do not even need songs or mnemonics to pass their traditions across generations; they seem to be hard-coded, unvarying. Continuity is all; the idea of progress is alien. Even the Nevi'im—who, as a priestly caste, would be most likely to have writing—are very much living in the present moment, less interested in preserving the prophecies of the past than in observing and reacting to the events of Now.

Here's the thing, though—and I'm gonna venture into mild SPOILER territory here, so avert your eyes if you're squeamish—the written word is not entirely absent from The Honeythief; but when it shows up, in later chapters, it is the province of the devils of the story, and its function is as an instrument of corruption.

Now, I ask you; What does that say about me and my profession?

posted from my mother's spare bedroom, oddly enough

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