Good Fantasy Writing Is Pure Magic
As I watched last fall’s showdown of TV’s big-money epic fantasy franchises, I was wincingly reminded that language is the most underrated special effect. Unforced errors of word choice — loose talk of “focus” and “stress” in HBO’s “House of the Dragon,” for example — kept pulling me down from my fantasy high and into the diction of emails from human resources. Case in point: “I have pursued this foe since before the first sunrise bloodied the sky,” says the elf warrior-princess Galadriel in Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.” “It would take longer than your lifetime even to speak the names of those they have taken from me.” She’s adrift on a life raft with a mysterious stranger after a sea-monster attack, and certain dark intimations suggest that eldritch evil draws nigh. So far, so OK, but then her speech reaches its climax: “So letting it lie is not an option.”
Clangalang! Descending from a tagline fashioned by writers of the movie “Apollo 13” from something a NASA flight director said, “X is not an option” has become a staple of business-speak and coach-talk. The writers of Galadriel’s speech couldn’t have killed the buzz any deader if they’d followed up with, “I’m all about laserlike focus 24-7 on getting some closure on this whole Sauron thing.” It galls me that Hollywood spends zillions on C.G.I. dragons and cities and hosts on the march, but then from sheer tin-eared laziness or a misplaced desire for “relatability,” allows their wondrous spell to be undone by script screw-ups that any half-competent swords-and-sorcery writer — or reader — could fix overnight for a hundred bucks and a six-pack.
To be reminded what language all by itself can do, try E.R. Eddison’s novel “The Worm Ouroboros,” first published in 1922. At some point in the 1970s, I bought a plump Ballantine paperback edition for a dime or two in a used bookstore on the South Side of Chicago. I read it in a fugue state of mounting joy on my way home from school on the Jeffery 6 bus, as I walked from the bus stop to my house, and straight on into the night. Visions filled my head — King Gorice conjuring amid his alembics and grammaries in the Iron Tower of Carcë; wet sands gleaming with the lights of the besieged seaside castle of Owlswick — as I gorged on Eddison’s sentences. The words themselves, even more than the scenes they described, pulsed with possibility and invitation.
“The Worm” ranks among the greatest epic fantasies of all time, keeping company with pound-for-pounders like the “Iliad” and the King James Bible, mostly on the strength of its diction, which resembles 16th-century English. So put aside for the moment the story it tells of a great war between the righteous Demons and the nefarious but far more interesting Witches, and put aside as well its characters, world-thinking, action set pieces and the like. They’re all gorgeous, though some readers claim to have trouble with trivial quirks like the merely gestured-at setting on Mercury; the framing device of a traveler from Earth who disappears after a few pages; or the naming of various peoples as Demons, Witches and Goblins. None of that matters anywhere near as much as the language Eddison concocted to take you somewhere extraordinary and keep you gloriously, deliriously there.
The novel features the requisite euphonious place names (Zajë Zaculo, the Straits of Melikaphkhaz, Thremnir’s Heugh), swordplay (“Nor had they greater satisfaction that went against Lord Juss, who mowed at them with great swashing blows, beheading some and hewing some asunder in the midst, till they were fain to keep clear of his reaping”) and sorcery (“ ‘Abase thee and serve me, worm of the pit’”). But the book is at its best when characters just go about their daily business. They eat: “When the Lord Corund knew of a surety that he held them of Demonland shut up in Eshgrar Ogo, he let dight supper in his tent, and made a surfeit of venison pasties and heath-cocks and lobsters from the lakes.” They gossip: “ ‘Truly this foreign madam with her loose and wanton ways doth scandal the whole land for us.’” They look up at the sky: “A great wind moaning out of the hueless west tore the clouds as a ragged garment, revealing the lonely moon that fled naked betwixt them.”
Hollywood keeps promising that further advances in computer-generated imagery will produce ever-braver new worlds of immersive experience. But our most enduringly potent fantasies consist of words, and part of their potency lies in inviting your imagination to do the work. The more work it does, the more capable it gets. If you had a choice between taking either J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” books or their movie adaptations to the proverbial desert island, which would you choose? Would you take the Old Testament or the Charlton Heston version of it? The films would rapidly become spectacles you’d seen too many times, but you could keep coming back to the books and finding further dimensions, fresh visions, novel experiences in their language-generated imagery.
I’m not eager to see a movie version of “The Worm.” With the limitless budget afforded by Eddison’s language, I can outspend even the most obscenely expensive production a thousandfold in my head. His prose can exalt anything into the stuff of epic fantasy, even the contents of a chamber pot: “A bucketful took Corund in the mouth, befouling all his great beard, so that he gave back spitting. And he and his, standing close beneath the wall, and little expecting so sudden and ill an answer, fared shamefully, being all well soused and bemerded with filth and lye.” I wouldn’t trade “bemerded” for all the special-effects magic in this world or any other.
Carlo Rotella is a professor of English at Boston College and the author of “The World Is Always Coming to an End: Pulling Together and Apart in a Chicago Neighborhood” (University of Chicago Press, 2019).